Let me tell you about a bygone era of cinema. A time when films were entertaining, meaningful and fun. A simpler time when stories could be told by the actions of the characters, not by the audience being repeatedly told how awesome and cool everything is without being shown any evidence. A distant past in which expectations could be subverted to keep the audience guessing without feeling confused. When was this, you say? What am I talking about? Well, dear reader, cast your mind back into the far reaches of your memory and you may recall the world as it was in the year of Our Lord, two thousand and fifteen. The film of course was Mad Max: Fury Road. Can you even remember that far back? Before the terrible events of the last few years divided our world into people who liked Jurassic World and people who are not completely wrong about cinema. The point I’m trying to make with this glib and cloying introduction is that when I came out of Fury Road I was filled with hope for cinema. Mad Max had yanked the dusty sheets from the windows and let the light pour in. We were allowed to have fun in films again! Not everything needed to be a Christopher Nolan Batman film. Not everything needed to be grim and tedious and jaded. I don’t want to sound dramatic but it felt, to me, like a complete rebirth of the medium of cinema and while Hollywood always takes the worst, most cynical things away from any successful work I hoped they would take one thing away from Mad Max and remember that films could be fun.
There seemed to be a lot of other positive moves around that time too: John Wick, for all its faults, signalled a revival in visceral, cleanly shot violence. A far cry from the shaky mess of the Bourne films and the Daniel Craig Bond films showed a fresher (if not wholly “fun”) approach to the spy thriller.
Why then, why, after all that did I have to sit through American Assassin? Why was this dreary, flaccid piece of cinema created in the first place? There’s plenty of room for serious spy thrillers (see my recent review of Scribe, plug, plug) and there’s plenty of room for dumb, enjoyable romps through a world of gadgets and traps but this takes all the seriousness and none of the humour or joy from its predecessors and churns out a thoroughly mundane product.
American Assassin follows Carl American-Man whose fiance, Bikini McBoobs is brutally gunned down moments after he proposes. This sparks his one-man campaign of vengeance against the Terrorists who took her from him. Because a woman’s value can only be measured by the how her death might affect a man. Instead of being a cautionary tale about how revenge only leads to further suffering (see, the masterful, Blue Ruin) we are treated to several masturbatory scenes in which Chad Superbowl is a violent, unstable jerk to those around him. Brett Disney-World then infiltrates a Terrorist cell with the ill-conceived plan of destroying it from within, presumably by being a violent jerk and fitting in perfectly. Some stuff happens and then the CIA immediately asks him to join. Like, immediately. This is where the mine cart started to wobble on the tracks for me. While this is a tried and tested formula (troubled hero who distrusts authority is taken under the wing of an intelligence agency and learns to use his violent urges to do some good (relatively speaking)), if you take an action film hero and put him or her in the “real” world, next to normal people, they look like an absolute maniac. Chet Springbreak shows himself to be an unstable, mouthy little shit all the way through his training with his gruff mentor, who presumably has a name, played by Michael Keaton.
You know in these types of films when they have the training montage in the CIA facility? Where they go through a plywood assault course and shoot targets that pop out of the wall and then the mentor gives them a dressing down for being a loose cannon? What if that was replaced by a very boring sequence where a bunch of people in Augmented Reality headsets mill about in a warehouse shooting at things you can’t see? Would that be good? No, it wouldn’t, but that’s what they did. During this sequence Brad Jingoism is shown the figure of the man who killed his fiancé (not one of the designated targets) and proceeds to shoot him repeatedly. Each time he is given a painful electric shock but keeps shooting because his need for vengeance is more powerful than something or other. Is this the kind of person you want on your team? The training seems to do everything it can to drive a wedge between the recruits and never makes a point about teamwork or duty or anything for that matter. It’s very frustrating to watch. Like the origin story part of a superhero movie, the training sequence is often the most entertaining part of spy films but not here, that’s for certain.
The women in this film are little more than sexy bullet magnets. Each one pops up, waves her breasts around for a bit and is then shot to the mild annoyance of Johnny Neckmuscles. It started to become a bit ridiculous. I didn’t think I’d see a film that had less respect for women than Crank 2, but here we are.
Fun films can get away with a lot (Crank 2 for instance?), but if you’re not immersed in an enjoyable world, you start to notice the roughness as you run your hand over the surface. There are lines in this film so shockingly bad that they stood out even amongst the deafening roar of this film’s desperate, patriotic masculinity. The CIA Director (Assistant Director? I have no idea) says, about Zac Not-Efron’s performance in CIA tests, “He’s the best I’ve ever seen, he’s testing off the charts.” Shocking. All with a completely straight face. This film thinks it’s incredibly cool and it assumes you do to without doing anything to get you there. I thinks it can just tell you that the main character is the best CIA recruit they’ve ever seen despite him being a volatile bag of scorpions and guns.
The “characters” on display here are basically transparent. Each plucked from the default template that comes up when you click “New character…” in Microsoft Character Maker 2017. The mentor who doubts him at every turn but takes him on missions after watching him play AR WiiSports for an afternoon. The mysterious female spy, beautiful but mysterious and also mysterious but deadly and beautifully mysterious. The Terrorists, so lazily cut from the pages of a Daily Mail article. The villain, oh my word, the villain, when he eventually turns up, is frighteningly predictable. The second Keaton sees grainy news footage of him I thought, “Ah, he’ll be an ex-student, THE BEST I’VE EVER SEEN TESTING OFF THE CHARTS, who went astray and started playing by his own rules.” And what do you know? Without spoiling it, I was exactly correct. It’s not spoiling it because this film spoils itself by being so painfully generic you can see everything coming before you take your seat. None of the character moments feel earned, either. I just didn’t get invested in the personal vendettas of this testosterone infused beef homunculus as he screamed and punched and shot his way through dozens of people. I guess the only surprise is how the end doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with the beginning, but I wouldn’t want to ruin it. One note: There were two teenage girls sitting a few seats along from me who started talking to each other for about the last ten minutes of the film. Now, while it was admittedly annoying, I couldn’t really blame them. Honestly, if the exciting action climax of your film can’t hold people’s attention, you’ve made some terrible choices.
The films seems ashamed of its own 18 certificate too. It shies away from violence in areas that could have given it much more impact: Cutting away from people as they are shot, having people shot off screen rather than their on screen death being used for anything. Thinking about it, I’m not sure how it got an 18 certificate. Maybe I’m just completely numb to screen violence but this felt tame and sanitised in a way that hurt it.
The sound was weirdly bad in places. There were some terrible examples of jarring ADR as the quality of people’s voices completely changed on a cut. It was otherwise technically competent. The cameras were pointing at the people and there were some lights.
Also, right, I’m certain at one point some CIA dude asks head CIA lady about our hero’s “Polygram” test, not “Polygraph”, “Polygram”. A polygram is a classification of geometric shapes. Good work guys. Good scriptwriting. You know one of those actors turned to the director and said “Shouldn’t it be polygraph?” and the director said “I don’t know. Who cares? Just read the thing”
Michael Keaton is too good for this movie. He is head and shoulders the most interesting thing happening here and he doesn’t even get to do anything. There’s some classic Keaton growling towards the end but it’s too little too late. You shouldn’t have taken this one, Mike. This is a bad film and you are better than this.
Don’t watch this film. Watch a different film. Watch “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”, watch “Sicario” or “Burn After Reading” or “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”, there are so many good films in this kind of area. For christ’s sake the Bourne films are sort of entertaining, watch one of those but don’t watch this. It’s definitely not the best I’ve ever seen, and it’s definitely not testing off the charts.