British cinema's longstanding love affair with farce and larceny has yielded both classics and clunkers, the former largely characterized by the films of Charles Crichton, the latter by a wide array of mostly forgotten pictures little seen outside England proper. Director Jonathan Lynn's Wild Target is a mostly admirable attempt at a Crichton-like escapade that runs out of steam a bit before half-way. That doesn't entirely undermine the effort - strong performances and a few lingering witty interludes push it laboriously across the finish line - but in view of the film's unrealized potential, fans of the genre will be hard pressed not to feel a bit shortchanged. Mild interest in limited release should translate into predictable pre-DVD earnings for microdistributor Freestyle Releasing, with better long-term potential realized on commercial and pay television.
Clearly aspiring to return to, but falling well shy of his previous Hollywood successes (most famously My Cousin Vinny), Lynn's film centers around a kleptomaniac art swindler named Rose (Emily Blunt), her would-be assassin Victor Maynard (Bill Nighy) and a cherubic slacker named Tony (Rupert Grint) who inadvertently fall in league with one another after Maynard's employer (Rupert Everett) turns on all of them. A patient, carefully-laid setup establishes a colorful array of quirky characters but quickly falls prey to what appear to be the budgetary constraints of present-day British independent cinema - limited locations and too much time spent in said locations, biding time for the next affordable set piece.
That doesn't entirely spoil the effort - Blunt is a delight and Nighy, as always, an understated joy - but genuine moments of delight come so intermittently and unevenly that the film continually feels as if it's having to jump start itself over and over again. If there's a silver lining, it's that the film feels strangely like a promising pilot for an ongoing television series - certainly a more interesting underlying premise than any number of larceny-themed shows from both Hollywood and the UK that have launched and sputtered in just the past few years.
Other high notes include a brief but delectable performance from the terrific Eileen Atkins, an unusually dark turn by the very talented Martin Freeman and superb sound design work. For Lynn, whose Hollywood career has been non-existent since 2000's The Whole Nine Yards, the good news is that Wild Target, for all its flaws, proves he's still very much in the game; even at its clumsiest, Wild Target is still head and shoulders above any major studio comedy released in 2010.
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing
Cast: Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Rupert Grint, Rupert Everett, Eileen Atkins and Martin Freeman
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Screenwriter: Lucinda Coxon and Pierre Salvadori
Producers: Martin Pope and Michael Rose
Rating: PG-13 for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.
Running time: 98 min.
Release date: October 29 NY/LA, November 12 Exp.