The action-thriller Killing Season clocks in at a brisk 81 minutes, a lean running time not often seen in non-comedies. It’s so thinly scripted, however, that it proves even shorter films can outstay their welcome.

A veteran of multiple military campaigns — including the Bosnian War — American Col. Benjamin Ford (Robert De Niro) has retired to the Appalachian wilds of Tennessee, living in a log cabin a good 30 to 40 miles from the nearest town. Divorced but with an adult son (Milo Ventimiglia), Ford has contentedly withdrawn from human society. When he’s invited to attend the baptism of the infant grandson he’s never met, he can’t be bothered to drive the three hours down to Atlanta for it. Instead, Ford prefers his great outdoors surroundings, where he observes elk from a homemade hunting blind.

Enter into the picture John Travolta, who plays Emil Kovac, a former Serbian soldier executed by Ford in Bosnia toward the end of the war in 1995 for heinous crimes against civilians. Unlike his comrades, however, Kovac manages to somehow survive the execution, overcoming three years of paralysis. Eighteen years later, after obtaining intelligence on Ford’s whereabouts, he travels to Tennessee to exact his revenge. Initially befriending Ford by helping him out with some car trouble, Kovac spend an evening over dinner, drinks and some Johnny Cash LPs at his oblivious adversary’s cabin. It’s only the following morning when the two go elk-hunting with bow and arrows that Kovac reveals both his true identity and the nature of his intentions, suddenly engaging Ford in a deadly cat-and-mouse game in the wilderness.

At first, Killing Season appears to have some real potential. After revealing himself, Kovac makes it immediately clear he means business and is not above using whatever brutal methods he has at his disposal to take down his prey. And despite what disadvantages he may yield to Kovac in terms of age and physicality, De Niro’s Ford proves resourceful early on, combining both his survivalist military training and knowledge of the terrain to defend himself in a life-and-death situation. After Kovac strikes an early blow, it’s tense and exciting to see a limping 70-year-old De Niro flee for his life. At its best, Killing Season echoes the classic tropes of “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Unfortunately, the novelty quickly wears off. After Ford proves he can match — and maybe even exceed — Kovac’s penchant for brutality, the rest of the movie consists of a never-ending see-saw battle as one combatant gains the upper hand only for the other to seize it a few minutes later. While this framework does lend itself to a couple of truly squeamish “oh my god!” moments, it ultimately grows tiresome due to its repetitiveness. Writer Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) has the skeletal setup of a potentially effective narrative in place, but no idea where to go with it. As a result, the film’s second act never evolves into a third, and the filmmakers are forced to stretch that second act far longer than is warranted.

While Travolta has essayed his fair share of over-the-top villains over the course of his career, it’s not often he’s afforded the opportunity to play a foreign one. To the ears of an American with a Macedonian colleague, Travolta’s Serbian accent proves surprisingly convincing. Beyond that, Travolta makes the most of what he has to work with in inhabiting an insufficiently developed character. As Ford, De Niro is not successful in making us forget that he’s an Italian New Yorker through and through — his Southern accent comes and goes — and he’d have been better off having just played the vocal element straight-up. Still, De Niro hasn’t taken on such a physically demanding role since Ronin back in 1998, and it’s impressive to see that he’s still capable of projecting violent menace and power, even into his 70s.

This is the fifth feature film for director Mark Steven Johnson, and he’s displayed some genre versatility over the course of his career, moving from family drama (Simon Birch) to superhero action (Daredevil, Ghost Rider) to romantic comedy (When in Rome) and now lean thriller. However, as that list of film titles denotes, he’s rarely been successful. John McTiernan — who with Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October helmed three straight classic 80s actioners in a row — was originally attached to direct but bowed out after he couldn’t figure out what to do with it. His instincts proved sound.

For its effective cinematography and occasionally harrowing violence, fans of the genre may be satisfied investing an hour and a half in Killing Season. Everyone else would do well to catch a better executed version of the same premise with Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones in 2003’s The Hunted.