In Hollywood movies, killing someone isn’t usually a matter of right or wrong, but of hot or cold. Action-flick protagonists dispense their opponents coolly, yet with a sense of justice or even mercy. (When Indiana Jones plugged that guy with the scimitar, he was really doing him a favor; otherwise, the man would have been forced to continue living as an Arab.) In a psychological drama, however, homicide is messier. It’s the province of people who are troubled, sloppy, and uncool. The kind of characters who might be played by Sean Penn.

In deference to history, the man Penn impersonates in the vivid but ultimately unsatisfying The Assassination of Richard Nixon doesn’t hit his target. However eerie it may seem after 9/11, Samuel Byck’s real-life 1974 scheme to hijack and crash an airliner into the White House was a preordained failure. So, apparently, was the life of the would-be avenger, who soon vanished from public awareness. Recalled from oblivion in 1991 by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Assassins and now slightly renamed for director Niels Mueller’s feature debut, Sam Bicke is a high-strung, overimaginative Pennsylvania tire salesman. Splitting acrimoniously with his boss, who happens to be his brother, Bicke conceives a big, if not very bright idea: a mobile tire store that will travel to potential customers on a modified bus.

Alternately desperate or sanctimonious, Bicke pursues a whole mess of goals, some of them contradictory: He wants to show up his brother, get rich, undermine the profit motive, win back his irrevocably estranged wife (21 Grams co-star Naomi Watts), and bolster the status of his African-American mechanic friend Bonny (Don Cheadle), who may be happier keeping a low profile. To support himself while trying to win a Small Business Administration loan, Sam goes to work at an office-furniture showroom. His boss there, Jack (Jack Thompson), is a ruthless salesman and the embodiment of everything Sam loathes. Or at least Jack is the embodiment that Sam knows personally. As his plans begin to collapse and the SBA becomes one of his principal nemeses, Sam transfers his hostility to America’s First Salesman, the guy who, one character says, peddled a nonexistent plan to get out of Vietnam in 1968 and then sold it again in 1972. Nixon’s TV image recurs throughout the film, although its presence is not necessary to establish the period. Mueller has obviously studied Hollywood cinema, and his shadowy film carefully reconstructs its dejected, paranoid vibe.

The flip side of Penn’s I Am Sam character, Bicke is mentally challenged in a way that may not make sense to people who don’t remember the early ’70s. He is, for example, obsessed with the plight of black Americans and convinced that his own middle-class sufferings allow him a special bond with them. This outlook is both plausible and poignant, although Mueller and Kevin Kennedy’s script missteps when it sends Bicke to the local Black Panthers office with a proposal that plays as comedy: The formation of a mixed-race “Zebra Party.” The encounter is an ill-conceived moment that presages the film’s disappointing final sequence, which may be historically accurate but is dramatically indistinct.

This is Penn’s movie, and a better showcase for him than the slicker, shallower The Woodsman is for Kevin Bacon. Whether trying to hawk desks to office managers or his dreams to Bonny—who may not understand or even like him—Bicke is always essentially alone. That’s fine with Penn, who can persuasively pit his character’s alienation against such phantoms as Nixon and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Bicke’s ideal of personal integrity and the intended recipient of letters explaining the failed salesman’s absurd plot. Still, the film is most revealing when Bicke confronts Jack or his other brother, Julius (Michael Wincott). Both men have limited views of the world, but ones whose coherence throws Bicke’s delusions into high relief.

Perhaps The Assassination of Richard Nixon should have broken with actual events and allowed Bicke to meet his adversary—not to kill him, but for a conversation that would illuminate the contrast between two very different varieties of ’70s losers.

Jennifer Garner couldn’t play a murderer in a psychological drama. Despite her licensed-to-kill experience on TV’s Alias, she’s too much the girl next door: Although unusually pretty, she’s unthreateningly normal, and she often seems young for her age.

In Elektra’s prologue, Garner’s red-satin-clad assassin blows away some people, but you know they had it coming. The real story starts when she’s sent to a remote community in the Pacific Northwest and meets her new neighbors, willful 13-year-old Abby (Kirsten Prout) and benevolent dad Mark (Goran Visnjic). They’re her next targets, of course, but, also of course, she can’t bring herself to kill them. Just 10 minutes into the film, Elektra isn’t an impassive executioner anymore. Recalling her traumatic past and bonding with Abby, she’s soon shedding so many tears that the movie could be termed an “action weepie.”

Elektra is based loosely on characters Frank Miller created 25 years ago for Marvel’s Daredevil comic. The daughter of Greek plutocrats who were murdered when she was young, Elektra finds her true path as a highly disciplined ninja. This plot line was Miller’s homage to Japanese manga, which greatly influenced his angular, dynamic compositions. In the movie, however, Elektra’s backstory plays like a klutzy, earnest Kill Bill—Vol. 3. She’s lethal but somehow innocent, with her maternal (or sisterly) instincts suddenly awakened. There’s even a Bill: former mentor Stick, a sightless Westerner who knows the ways of the East and once banished Elektra but now returns to help her. Aptly, Stick is played by Terence Stamp, who went on a real-life Asian spiritual quest around the time that Kill’s Bill, David Carradine, was dispensing fortune-cookie wisdom on Kung Fu.

Unlike his former pupil, Stick has fully mastered Kimigure, which is some sort of control over time and space, life and death. (In Japanese, the word just means “caprice” or “whimsy.”) This power first resurrects Elektra, who died in Daredevil—both the comic and the movie—and later proves useful when Stick and Elektra face the Hand, an evil spiritual/corporate cabal that wants something or someone it calls “the treasure.” Too bad Kimigure couldn’t have transported scripters Zak Penn, Stuart Zicherman, and Raven Metzner to a state of enlightenment that would have precluded the cruel-Oriental stereotypes of such characters as Roshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Kirigi (Will Yun Lee). The latter commands a sort of brotherhood of evil mutants—yeah, I know that’s a different comic—whose members include Typhoid (her very touch drains life), Tattoo (his nasty-animal body art comes to life), and Stone (he’s, like, really hard). Too superpowered to be interesting, these villains were born (or CGI’d) to lose.

Director Rob Bowman keeps the camera mobile, leans heavily on slo-mo, lights faces like a comic-book Caravaggio, and tries to limit the melodrama of Elektra’s life story by splintering it into flashbacked scraps. His principal innovations include setting most of the film in pastoral locations—far from Daredevil’s shabby-chic mean streets—and staging one battle amid dozens of swirling white sheets. Both gambits suggest that the director has seen Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Anyone thinking of watching a flashy martial-arts flick should do the same. Elektra is moderately engaging and modestly stylish, but action isn’t its strength. In fact, the movie is most convincing when it most resembles another recent flick in which the girlish Garner plays dress-up: 13 Going on 30.CP