Wednesday, September 13, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN and Hollywood's Frequent Spectacle Problem

When I first saw the trailer for American Assassin a couple of months ago, I was blown away. Here was a spy film starring Michael Keaton, Dylan O'Brien, and Taylor Kitsch. Michael Keaton has long been one of my favorite actors because of his ability to provide convincing performances in films like Clean and Sober even as he worked on classic comedies like Mr. Mom . Taylor Kitsch's career has been more mixed than Keaton's, but his strong performances in Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor and many other projects more than make up for his less successful work. Dylan O'Brien is a star on the rise who is well known enough to younger audiences that he might just be able to launch an action franchise.

The earliest teaser trailers focused on the origins of the "American Assassin" Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien), giving audiences a glimpse of his ruthless capabilities and the tragedy that inspired him to become a killer. It was these early teasers that convinced me to begin reading the Mitch Rapp books by Vince Flynn. I'm a fan of spy films and novels, but given the breadth of my pop culture tastes I usually need some catalyst to get me to start up yet another long running series. I was grateful to those trailers, because the Mitch Rapp books I've read - Transfer of Power, American Assassin, and Kill Shot - are engaging and plausible stories. Mitch hasn't knocked John Wells out of first place for my favorite modern spy, but he's starting to get close.

What impressed me most about these three books was how they never presented Mitch as superhuman.  In the first book written in the series, Transfer of Power, the White House is taken over by terrorists and it's up to our hero Mitch to "save the day." Except it isn't up to him at all. Transfer of Power was published in 1999, before Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, so the premise was fresh at the time but that book could not be used as the franchise launching film. It was also very different from those other White House has been taken over films. Instead of being a "single man against the small army" tale inspired by Die Hard that Olympus Has Fallen portrayed, Mitch spent most of Transfer of Power sitting in a closet with a retired Secret Service agent trying to figure out how to turn off a communications jamming device and locate explosives the terrorists set throughout the building. Mitch is doing this so that Delta and Seal Team Six can come and save the day. The book focused more on surveillance and planning than on action and dealt with Beltway Politics more than witty one liners after kill shots. There were no "Ho, Ho, Ho, now I have a machine gun" or "You've had your six" moments. It was as plausible as this implausible story could be.

This veneer of plausibility continued through the next two books I read. In American Assassin (the book), the main story line after Mitch's training is about an op gone bad and how Mitch adapts to the situation. Mitch's team is supposed to attempt to free a CIA agent who has been captured by terrorists and things go awry. Much of the book details the effects of emptying bank accounts and the paranoia this causes within the espionage community. There is action in the book, but there are also "follow Mitch as he pretends to jog in order to do surveillance" sections. The highest the stakes get is that the "bad guys" capture Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton's character in the film) and the danger of what will happen if they are able to interrogate him and find out everything the US has done. Very plausible stakes.

These plausible stories, minus Transfer of Power because Hollywood has done explosive versions of that movie, are the kinds of stories that make the best spy films. The best Bond film is Casino Royale and it's one of the most down to Earth of the series. My second favorite On Her Majesty's Secret Service is similarly plausible in its stakes. No giant space battles or massive underwater cities in those two films. When the Bourne films work best, it is because the stakes are personal. Similarly, Body of Lies works because it is realistic to the layperson and Hunt for Red October is so good because even with very high stakes the story doesn't go for too much spectacle.

American Assassin is directed by Michael Cuesta and his work on Kill the Messenger (which is exactly this kind of story) and Homeland seem a perfect fit for a plausible actioner similar to the books. Add to that a modest budget of $33 million, and we should be getting a "street level" spy story right?


Apparently not. It seems that CBS Films wants American Assassin to have SPECTACLE, so they incorporate a nuclear device. A nuclear device that by all appearances they blow up at sea in a manner that causes mayhem during a hand to hand battle. At least that's what the most recent trailers seem to be showing me. I haven't seen the film yet, and reviews by the Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire are good enough that I still will, but I really wish that the producers hadn't gone for the big bang. Hollywood has been overly trapped by the big bang in recent years. Almost every superhero movie is a big ticking clock protect the castle from the big bad movie lately, and let's not even start on how Transformers movies have become all spectacle and no narrative. Every Star Wars movie seems to be about blowing up yet another Death Star or mega huge spacecraft/shield generator. This year was the worst summer for box office in a long time. Maybe it's because producers don't trust audiences with smaller action stories. That's too bad, because what made the first John Wick movie work was how personal it was. Not every story needs to be a ticking clock to save the world. Sometimes it's enough to have the clock be to save one's self or even a friend.

That's what the books are about, and what I was hoping the movie will be about. We'll see if it delivers. I hope it does, but fear that Hollywood is going through one of its "Bigger is Always Better" phases.

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