The Karlovy Vary Film Festival is a rewardingly contradictory one. The locale is pure chocolate-box fragility: a bijou spa town in the densely wooded hills of the Czech republic, its buildings appear frosted by professional patissieres. The atmosphere, meanwhile, is more robustly rowdy: wealthy neighboring Russians populate the busy party circuit as cinema-loving students descend on the town by the busload, open-air bars surrounding the festival center dispensing rivers of Pilsner all the while. Neither the setting nor the crowds, meanwhile, immediately suggest the festival’s diverse, tough-minded programming, which trades largely in bleaker realities – or more challenging fantasies, as the case may be.

More than many festivals its size, Karlovy Vary’s film selection is keenly curated as opposed to merely cobbled-together – so I realize that it’s looking a gift horse in the mouth to lead off my coverage with what is, by several yards, the worst film there. But Mark Steven Johnson’s mangy dogs-of-war thriller Killing Season” (D-), which played as part of Karlovy Vary’s career achievement tribute to John Travolta, is not only the starriest of the fest’s otherwise discerningly chosen world premieres, but it’s also the one coming soonest to a theater (or, indeed, a laptop screen) near you. (Next week, in fact – though no one would blame you for waiting.) Not a festival film by any stretch of the imagination, this drably gory B-movie is best viewed as a necessary evil: a Hollywood attraction dangled to bait uncertain festivalgoers into the more exotic, more exciting reaches of a rich lineup. I’ll do likewise.

Travolta was on hand to introduce the film to a heaving crowd in the festival’s concrete-chic flagship theater. His co-star Robert De Niro, slumming it once more in the wake of his seventh Oscar nomination, was otherwise engaged. The same appears to be true of his performance, glazed-over even by his recent standards, as a terminally gruff former army colonel seeing out his retirement in a dingy log cabin in the wooded Deep South: embittered by the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, he has laid down his arms and assumed a fixed scowl as his weapon of choice.

Travolta, by contrast, is making more than enough effort for both of them as the Serbian war criminal once shot and left for dead by De Niro, and now out for retribution. Accessorizing his performance with a satin-sheen buzz cut, profoundly questionable facial hair and a thick Eastern Yoo-ro-pean accent that might kindly be described as ‘committed,’ he’s the liveliest element of a film that takes the windy combat philosophies spouted by these two still-bloodthirsty dinosaurs alarmingly at face value. Evan Daugherty’s dim-witted script was once on the Black List, though it began life as a story of two WWII veterans. A script editor could argue for this one-size-fits-all context on the rationale that man keeps fighting the same wars over and over again, but the shift doesn’t say much for the narrative’s depth of insight or attention to detail.

In any event, the film’s puny politics prove beside the point as the story devolves into a particularly bloody, repetitive game of cat-and-mouse – Tom and Jerry, specifically, as De Niro and Travolta stalk each other around the forest, taking turns to exact brutal, cartoonish punishments. “Thread a rusty stake through my leg and hang from the trees, will ya? Fine, I’ll pin you to the wall with an arrow through your cheek, before waterboarding you with salty lemonade.” Katniss Everdeen never had it so tough.

I needn’t tell you that once they’ve run out of arrows, lemonade and stamina – which is, by the way, some time after Johnson runs out of ways to stage their ludicrous showdowns, though well before cinematographer Peter Menzies tires of his trusty khaki filter – these two grizzled warhorses realize that they have more in common than a mutual taste for Johnny Cash and grievous bodily harm: they’re scarred by the same conflict, you see. Travolta’s Alien, De Niro’s Predator; whoever wins, we, the audience, lose. On the plus side, I suppose it’s nice that they’re making torture porn for old men now.

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.