Written by Tom Parnell and director Mark Savage, Painkiller imbues the vigilante thriller subgenre of action films with a timeliness by addressing the opioid epidemic. Bill Johnson’s (Bill Oberst Jr.) daughter died from overdosing on prescription pills. So, now he rails against big pharma and the doctors who constantly prescribe the deadly medications on his podcast. Off the air, he hunts those people down and shoots them. With the help of a vice squad member, he eludes police detection, but things are coming to a head.
See, not only are the cops facing immense pressure to catch this killer, but Dr. Alan Rhodes (Michael Paré) is inching closer to securing the patent to his disgraced partner’s pills, which are more potent than anything currently available today. But the good doc, Thomas (Tom Parnell), is attempting to stall the sale, as his new drug is not meant to be just another painkiller to be exploited. So now Bill has to track down Alan and avoid being caught. Is he successful, or is the opioid crisis about to get even worse?
Parnell and Savage are none-too-subtle with where they land on the side of big pharma versus vigilantes. Through Bill’s internet radio show, the filmmakers directly tell the audience their thoughts on the events, the crisis, and drug addiction due to negligence by medical professionals. This heavy-handed style does mean that some moments come across as rather silly because they feel over-the-top. A scene involving Alan talking to another doctor (or a pharmaceutical rep, it is a bit hazy) feels more like an exposition dump than necessary, as everything said are things both characters should already know.
“…rails against big pharma and the doctors who…prescribe the deadly medications…hunts those people down and shoots them.”
But outside of moments like that, which there are a handful of, the story works well. The characters’ motivations are reasonable, except for Lisa, played by Kristina Beringer, whose arc is learning how to stop being so selfish. Plus, the directing really stands out. The editing is great, as transitions from quieter moments to the violent ones flow naturally. This is helped along by the mesmerizing score, which feeds into the tension of the plot wonderfully. Running at less than 90 minutes, Painkiller is a quick and effective ride, with the cinematography offering a lot of moody shots that let the somber tone sink in.
But what truly makes the film worth watching is the cast. Bill Oberst Jr. and Michael Paré always bring their A-game, no matter how small the role or project. Things are no different here, as they are both excellent. Their gravitas and natural charisma lend the proper serious tone to the proceedings while still allowing the audience to have some cathartic fun via the vigilante-style killings. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, but these consummate professionals do just that. They are assisted by an equally capable supporting cast as well.
Painkiller hammers its message home, which might frustrate some viewers. But, the direction is good, the action exciting, the story interesting, and the score is beyond stellar. The serious nature of the plot never gets dragged down by the more unintentionally over-the-top elements, meaning the themes remain relevant in a relatable fashion.
"…what truly makes the film worth watching is the cast."