A badger is a carnivorous nocturnal mammal that lives underground and is characteristically hostile. In writer/director Kirk Caouette’s moody action thriller, American Badger, the cryptic protagonist bestows himself with a nickname taken from the angry animal. Because what hitman going by the name Dean can be remotely intimidating?
The lonely hitman (Caouette) narrates how he prefers to work alone and lives life without making any decisions to avoid failure and disappointment. Perhaps the crux of his isolation stems from the fact that he lost his wife to terminal cancer (John Wick, anyone?). He only interacts with his dog and handler, who offers him jobs over the phone, never in person. While these assignments are never pristine or quick and often turn into a bloodbath, Dean/Badger is skilled at shooting and hand-to-hand combat.
However, Dean’s self-imposed isolation ends when he’s tasked to befriend a sex worker named Velvet/Marcella (Andrea Stefancikova). She has close ties to an Albanian mob boss, and he must extract some information from her. Being a professional, he reluctantly agrees, but he finds himself torn between the job and his nascent relationship with the mark.
American Badger is a bold and showy action-thriller upheld by brisk, muddy action scenes, which often coincide with slow-mo and oblique angles for maximum impact. The action is accompanied by shaky camerawork and settings that include a neon nightclub or a secluded warehouse. While some scenes are more coherent than others, the filmmaker keeps the perspective restricted to Dean’s inscrutable gaze and wavering intentions. Unfortunately, that does very little to help Marcella, whose internal plight is far more enticing.
“…has close ties to an Albanian mob boss, and [Dean] must extract some information from her.”
At first, Dean is strict, always behaving professionally, but the arrival of Marcella compels him to let his guard down. Caouette effectively portrays this subtle change in the assassin. A gracefully subdued Andrea Stefancikova provides the emotionally and physically scarred Marcella with nuance, inducing pained eyes and a tired demeanor conveying such unimaginable agony from years of abuse. Nevertheless, it is the violence Dean and Marcella contemplate executing which offers them some solace, hence why at one point, Dean says, “…revenge and redemption can look awfully similar.”
However, American Badget does not naturally, or even melodramatically, progress their relationship. There is little actual chemistry or fleshed-out conflict worth dwelling on. Even so, there are splashes of directorial finesse, as seen by how stylized the intimately shot fight scenes are and how the atmosphere is appropriately somber to align itself with the hallmarks of a noir — cigarette smoke, shady characters, and moral ambiguity pervade every dimension of the movie.
The film presents a story that is all too familiar and predictable. But predictability is not evidence of failure or lack of engagement. Working on a paltry budget, Caouette emphasizes action over plot and succeeds. Shun Ando’s editing could have better controlled the number of shots, let alone the need for them. Still, none of the technical hiccups greatly impact how impressive the action is, especially when considering the budgetary limitations.
Despite lacking more elaborate storytelling, Kirk Caouette’s indie thriller features enthralling action and a consistent aura of dread. American Badger was shot and executed with great pride and swagger. Perhaps the overly familiar, weakly developed plot will leave some viewers disappointed. Still, those open to B-movie action will be elated to hear that the movie succeeds where it counts.
"…splashes of directorial finesse..."