Review: American Assassin

A preposterous and humourless crime thriller

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After a string of well received films by director Michael Cuesta, the Hollywood call for another risk-less, humourless franchise was just too strong to ignore. Thankfully American Assassin will lay to rest with the other bare minimum attempts by Lionsgate to create a cash-cow replacement to the Hunger Games and the other 15 and counting novels in the same series will remain just that.

The biggest red flag is the four billed writers who produced three separate rewrites of the book adaptation. Four different people who wanted to leave their personal stamp, skewing the plot and tonality in their separate directions. The result is an incredibly self-serious film with a ludicrous storyline.

Dylan O’Brien, whose performance is only restricted by the material he has to work with, plays the main character of Mitch Rapp. On an idyllic beach in Ibiza he proposes to his girlfriend before heading to the bar for celebratory drinks. From the overly-saturated shooting style it is obvious that violence is incoming and sure enough multiple terrorists slaughter holiday-goers in an horrendously explicit sequence. Rapp gets shot several times but makes it over to his now-finacee just in time to see her become his ex-fiancee.

From here on in American Assassin becomes a vengeance-obsessed thriller and Rapp dedicates the next several months to become a MMA and gun-trained killer whilst simultaneously infiltrating a terrorist cell. When he travels to meet them, the CIA, who have allegedly been ‘monitoring him for some time’, charge in and take them all out.

Rapp in frustration stabs the dead body of one of them repeatedly before being dragged away. CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy, a role that wastes the talents of Sanaa Lathan, decides to hire Rapp rather than put him into prison, as any rational person would do.

A further step down into madness and Rapp’s character gets a quick-fire training by former Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to be one of his ‘Orion’ operatives. His first task is to stop World War III. A person who two years prior was just an average joe now holds the peace of the world on his shoulders. Throw in Taylor Kitsch as ‘generic villain 001’, a nudity scene for the sake of the nudity scene and a finale with worse CGI than the James Bond glacial-surfing scene in Die Another Day and you have the makings of yet another 2017 flop film.

Although it isn’t addressed we can assume that many American people died in the climax to the film. None of that matters though because the main protagonist survives and the deceased aren’t introduced or developed as characters, going against the supposed main theme of the film that the death of innocent people is needless.

Through all the preposterousness you can kind of see what Cuesta intends, to find the gap between the young adult and crime genre’s hopefully attracting both demographics. The final scene is purposefully left open-ended to hint at a sequel but anyone who enjoyed this film may find themselves waiting a very long time.

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

By far the most inconsequential Marvel movie yet

Tom Holland stars in the third iteration of the Spider-Man character and the first within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is an increasing sense of fatigue with the over saturation of superhero films and this does not change with Homecoming. From the first scene it is made clear though that this is a smaller scale movie, one than looks up to the Avengers not down from their height. For that reason this is Marvel’s most realistic to date. The people are real and so are the stakes.

When the Avengers destroy parts of the city, it is the citizens that are left to clean up the damage. A whole industry has formed in the wake of these repeated disasters that without warning is suddenly taken away. Tony Stark’s latest venture Damage Control will now manage all salvage operations leaving Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his crew in New York jobless. Rather than back down and find employment elsewhere, he and his team steal a truckload of alien technology and use it to create hybrid weapons destined for the black market. In order to keep a steady flow of new scrap, Toomes tracks and hijacks Damage Control trucks. For 8 years his business has thrived, but after Spider-man stumbles upon some otherworldly weapons, their paths begin to cross.

From the offset it is clear that director Jon Watts is trying to innovate, to surprise the audience with something new, however using a brighter colour palette and a selection of musical cues does not change the fact that the skeleton of each film is the same. The villain is always forgettable yet well acted, here Keaton is formidable as Vulture but his motives are foggy. He wants to take revenge on the Avengers in their ivory towers but does so by selling weapons to thugs to buy himself an ivory tower for his family.

The action scenes although destructive are almost always aimless. As the ferry gets split in half part way through I should have been exhilarated, instead the whole sequence was a drag. In 2015’s Age of Ultron the entire fictional city of Sokovia is ripped from the Earth and rises into the sky, the end result in a series of ever more catastrophic events across multiple films. In cinema as in real life our empathy and interest towards conflict and disaster only extends so far before we become numb. I did not care about the ferry nor the people on it because I have seen it relentlessly in every Marvel film. What the viewer will not become numb to is good character development and clear motives, something that most superhero films, including this one, lack. Far too often brilliant actors are wasted in one-dimensional or bit roles, Tony Revolori, Donald Glover, Kenneth Choi and Hannibal Buress all fall into these categories.

Self promotion is another issue prevalent in the Marvel franchise. Every release will at some point reference its predecessors and advertise a few more. The deeper we go into the franchise the worse it gets. While this allows for more complex storylines that work across multiple films it alienates the average moviegoer. You would not be able to fully comprehend the events of Homecoming unless you had seen Civil War, and that was the build up of multiple films in itself. Suddenly you have 16 films you have to watch as a prerequisite for simply understanding the latest release. There are 3 more in post production as of writing with one more filming and multiple more in the works. As more time passes the issue will continue to get worse and diminishing returns is inevitable.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first indication that Marvel might deviate from its formulaic structure of producing films. The original elevator pitch for this would have been ‘High School drama’ yet the creative licence given to the writers never extends to a majority. It always has to be a superhero film first and foremost. If Marvel wants to remain relevant it has to evolve, to stop making the same movie in a different skin. Homecoming is a step in the right direction but for every one step forward they seem to take 2 steps back.

Review: The Founder

An overnight sensation 30 years in the making

The idea that John Lee Hancock’s latest film was probably just another narrative about making it in America meant that my anticipation for it was rather low. But as the film unfolded I was caught off guard by its surprising density.

The Founder, which has interesting ironic undertones, explores the conceptual origins of fast-food and the empire of the food-chain McDonald’s. It is 1954 when we are introduced to the insatiable salesman Ray Kroc (convincingly played by Michael Keaton). Struggling and fast-paced, he is the embodiment of the free market system and good old American capitalism. Unsuccessfully attempting to sell milkshake makers to diners, an order of eight from a San Bernardino burger stand piques his interest. What distinguishes this thriving restaurant from the ones that he struggles to sell a single one to? He drives all the way from Illinois to find out.

The stand, of course, is the original McDonald’s. The whole concept of the busy place confuses Kroc, he can’t seem to grasp that his food is presented to him almost instantaneously after ordering it, or that no crockery is required, or he can eat it where ever he pleases. The movie addresses the shift of fast food and the initial learning curve consumers experienced in the next sequence superbly, and will also be our first encounter with the McDonald brothers. Featuring terrific performances by John Caroll Lynch (The Zodiac) and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson) as Mac and Dick, they manage to convey a down-to-earth pair who simply strive to have their own piece of the American Dream after years of persistence and hard work. Except they came up with a notion that would revolutionise America and they didn’t even know it.

Over a particularly well shot scene of dinner between our three main interests, a fascinated Kroc listens to the brothers recount their long and arduous process to coming up with their unique system. Hancock unfolds the brothers’ past through a series of flashbacks of their thirty-year struggle. The story rises to an electric climax as they calmly come to explain their Eureka moment by pinpointing the weaknesses of competitors, such as poor quality food and slow service that attracts undesired clientele (here it is teenagers that are the problem). It is Dick who localises where they are losing and could potentially save time and money. From past experience, he assesses that certain items are guaranteed to sell, and by pure logic decides to strip the menu down to the basics such as hamburgers, fries and milkshakes. The next point is a stroke of genius, simultaneously in the filmmaking and in real life, as the scene shows Dick arbitrating his staff around a mock-up chalk kitchen, manoeuvring it over and over in order to create their pioneering time-effective system. This is the stuff capitalist dreams are made of.

Concise, minimal and easy to keep cleanliness and quality in check, the McDonald brothers are perfectly content with their creation. But Kroc thinks differently, and has the gut feeling he has stumbled upon a rare opportunity. His love for business immediately latches onto the fact that the McDonald’s structure can be endlessly replicated, urging the brothers to “franchise it”. Here the direction puts the viewer in a conflicted spot, aware of the potential Kroc sees, yet faced with the brothers’ sincere attachment to their creation and high-quality standards. Soon enough, Kroc comes up with just the right hook to reel them in— American values. Each town he drives by has two things: a church and a court house. Both places where the American Family congregate, both with symbols associated to these common values: The Cross and the American flag. Kroc insists that the “Golden Arches” of McDonalds could be of the same meaning, a place where “decent, wholesome people come together”.

After a tug-of-war business relationship between the three, Kroc’s hunger for more pushes him to cease all decency and figures out how he can pull the business from under the McDonald’s brothers’ feet through real estate trickery. In a poignant, and for the audience, uncomfortable phone call between the brothers and “The Founder”, Kroc hits them with the disheartening truth: “I’m national. You’re local”, succinctly addressing the at times chilling American capitalist drive.