Friday, 15 September 2017

Review: American Assassin

American Assassin
Cert: 18 / 112 mins / Dir. Michael Cuesta / Trailer

As the BBFC card boldly proclaimed "American Assassin: 18, strong, sadistic and bloody violence", a hush descended over the not inconsiderably-sized audience. The film, dealing as it does with themes of terrorism, revenge and moral accountability opened with a disco-backed montage of worldwide political unrest and narrated by President Carter's Crisis of Confidence speech.

'Well', I thought, 'this is a very similar start to the still-playing Tom Cruise movie American Made. I can't imagine that it's entirely deliberate but it will be interesting to contrast each film's approach to core values of democracy and intrinsic freedom'. Then within thirty seconds, the scene cut to Tom Cruise sitting in the cockpit of a plane, and half a dozen members of the audience (including me) found ourselves walking jointly toward the foyer to point out that they were playing the wrong film*1.

PROJECTION SCHEDULERS: You'll have to do more than just look at the first word of the title, yeah?*2 Anyway, American Assassin began around two minutes after that.

American Assassin opens with Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) on holiday with his girlfriend Katrina in the Bahamas, when a terrorist attack kills hundreds on the beach including his beloved. Over the next 18 months, Mitch fuels his grief into working-out, target-practice and infiltrating the terrorist cell he holds responsible, with a view to wiping them out in an act of morally justified revenge*3. But the mission falls at the final hurdle when he inadvertently steps on the toes of a CIA black-ops team, who then recruit Mitch to put his talents to more structured use. Under the charge of Agent Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) and Agent Hurley (Michael Keaton), Rapp is taken to Rome where the mysterious 'Ghost' (Taylor Kitsch) is assembling a nuclear device for the highest bidder*4

So, 'the beach-scene' is a powerful start to an intriguing, if uneven, film. It's not quite gleeful in its application of violence, but cinematographer Enrique Chediak works an unflinching camera. The fast-cutting in scenes of gunfire is used to navigate to the shots that hurt, not around them. O'Brien is an incredibly strong lead, too; his best work definitely still to come, I think. And I'd genuinely forgotten what it was like to look forward to a Michael Keaton flick, but this year has been so good to us in that regard. His supporting performance as the Navy Seal turned counter-terrorist is nothing short of masterful. The narrative itself can feel a little heavy-handed, but that's understandable given the subject matter (although from an idealogical point-of-view, the film's first-act is borderline Western propaganda).

It's not all plain-sailing, of course. As arresting as the opening is, once the action hits the streets of Rome it's only two steps away from becoming a Luc Besson thriller with Eli Roth on torture-duty*5. For a story that starts with such urgency, American Assassin quickly takes to treading a well-worn path, with shell-casings in abundance but free of emotional engagement. We need to talk about Taylor Kitsch too, overacting in just about every scene, reminding us why he's been out of the cinematic limelight for so long*6. Together, Kitsch and O'Brien are like two differently-aged versions of the same character. And from a certain point-of-view that's absolutely crucial, but it's also distracting as fuck when you're watching it play out. And naturally, no action-thriller would be complete without a ticking-countdown ending of course, especially if that timer is attached to a nuke*7...

There's the feeling in the final push that American Assassin doesn't have quite as much to say as it thought it did when it stood up and dinged its knife against the glass. But as a hard-edged political action-flick, it's head and shoulders above the rest of its class, and well worth your time for the things it does well…*8

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Unlocked, Eye In The Sky, Daniel Craig-era Bond.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
It'll probably work better on a big screen than a small one.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Well it's adapted from a novel (/some novels), so if its aim is "bring a series of books to the big screen in the transparent hope of franchising the fuck out of the property" then it probably does.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's an incredibly strong turn for everyone involved, but not best...

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There ain't.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Mr Dylan O'Brien was in The Scorch Trials, of course, along with Alan 'K-2SO' Tudyk.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Serious point, though: the BBFC card was for American Assassin - while I know the ads and trailers are interchangeable throughout a film's cinema-run, I thought the BBFC card was hard-coded to the digital print of the film? I've heard of age-inappropriate trailers being screened before, but not this. Projection managers, please tell me how this can happen, thank you. [ BACK ]

*2 Oh and apparently, films beginning with the adjective 'American' (Eg.1, 2, 3, 4, etc) are not all part of one collective continuity. Which is in clear contravention of the law set down by The Rev. Ian Carry-On in 1958 and as such is frankly outrageous. [ BACK ]

*3 And call me cynical, but there doesn't seem to be a huge glut of stories about all the absolute arseholes that must also get killed in terrorist atrocities. I mean statistically, they've got to be there too, right? People are largely awful, after all. Not quite sure how you'd build a compelling film around this, but that's why I'm not a screenwriter. Yet. [ BACK ]

*4 And bonus points for the subliminal Back To The Future reference in the film. At one point we see Taylor Kitsch's character in the back of a transit van, examining a (conspicuously radioactive) antique clock, which he's buying on behalf of Libyan terrorists. In the next scene, Michael Keaton is watching a news bulletin reporting stolen Plutonium. Fantastic stuff. [ BACK ]

*5 Although sorry to be that guy, but the gunshot effects in the beach-scene look shite. In all fairness, I couldn't tell at first-pass if they were prosthetic shite or CGI shite, but the result was much the same. [ BACK ]

*6 Spoilers - highlight-to-read: Mind, there's a shot in this of Kitsch's character wearing U.S. Navy-whites as a younger man. Is American Assassin actually an unofficial sequel to Battleship?? [ BACK ]

*7 Spoilers - highlight-to-read: Right hang on, you're telling me you can detonate a nuclear device in the sea less than five miles off the coast of Italy and everything will be basically fine again within a matter of minutes? OH, OKAY THEN... [ BACK ]

*8 And thank you, dear reader, for reading all of these. You're very patient. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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