Showing posts with label CBS Films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CBS Films. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN (Film Review): Is AMERICAN ASSASSIN a Film Franchise in the Making?

Creating a new action franchise is a difficult process. It requires some combination of strong IP, star power, compelling narrative, and innovative action sequences. As was demonstrated ably by John Wick in 2014, it does not require a giant budget. CBS Films' recently released American Assassin featuring Vince Flynn's CIA "consultant" Mitch Rapp, has many of the requisite components, but are they enough?

In 1999, Vince Flynn's first Mitch Rapp novel Transfer of Power hit the bookshelves and rose to number 13 on the New York Times best-seller list. While Transfer of Power was subject to some mixed critical reviews, it was strong enough to build an audience big enough to support fifteen more novels and a movie deal. Though Mitch Rapp has a dedicated following are many reasons that Transfer of Power was not the book selected by Hollywood to introduce the character to a wider audience. The first and foremost reason is that Transfer of Power is about terrorists hijacking the White House and that storyline has been played out with Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. The second is that the critics were right to complain that Transfer of Power takes a long time to get to the action. Films are a visual medium and they need stories that are suited to visual storytelling. Long scenes of Mitch Rapp and a retired Secret Service Agent discussing how they are going to slowly scout out where the terrorists have hidden bombs and booby traps makes for a plausible narrative, but it's not the stuff of a great action film. In the end, producers selected the 2010 novel American Assassin, which details Mitch Rapp's origin, as their franchise entry.

One of the things that makes Mitch Rapp a good literary character is that he is what author/screenwriter Steven Barnes described as "a nerdy guy who suffers a tragedy and turns himself into Jason Bourne to get revenge against 'the terrorists.'" While Mitch Rapp is a very physically capable character, NCAA Lacrosse player in the books, he is first and foremost a thinker. In the books, he speaks French like a native and a number of other languages. In the film, he's taught himself Arabic. He's an autodidact of the highest order. It's a quality that makes him difficult to cast though because the actor must be both athletic and "geeky." Dylan O'Brien fits the bill perfectly. The charm that he displayed in Teen Wolf is still evident, but it's suppressed a little as the filmic Mitch Rapp is suffering from a severe case of PTSD.

Michael Keaton portrays Mitch Rapp's mentor/tormentor Stan Hurley in typical Keatonesque fashion. Which in this case means that Keaton turns a relatively unlikable character in the books into a character that is kinder and gentler than the literary version while somehow managing to retain the cold lethality that Stan Hurley embodies in the books. Sanaa Lathan does an effective job of portraying Irene Kennedy, Mitch Rapp's handler and the person who recruited Rapp into a secretive off the books CIA program. Taylor Kitsch chews just enough scenery as "Ghost" that audiences will believe that he's blinded by a need for revenge, but not so much that he spirals into farce as a villain. Much more could have been done with the back story between Hurley and Ghost, but there is enough presented in the film to make Ghost's motivations clear.

Where the film begins to falter is in it's selected narrative. The underlying premise of the film is that some Iranian hardliners are unhappy with the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. These hardliners have come into contact with a former US operative (Ghost) who has agreed to deliver nuclear material to them that they can use to make a nuclear device. What the hardliners don't know is that Ghost plans on using the device himself and in doing so get revenge on the country that abandoned him behind enemy lines. There are some twists in the plot that aren't given as much time to sink in with audiences as they deserve. Chief among these is that the Iranian government itself has been monitoring these hardliners and has sent their own agent to infiltrate the CIA's investigation. This is played off in a "OMG we have a traitor...oh, wait...not a traitor, but valuable resource" sequence that lasts all of five minutes.

Typical of many modern films, American Assassin isn't satisfied with smaller stakes. It takes what could have been an effective kidnap revenge story, which is one of the narratives in the book (though not with Ghost), and dials it to 11 with the addition of a nuclear device. Instead of learning from John Wick, Casino Royale, and The Bourne Identity that personal stakes can drive an action movie, the film relies on the staid ticking clock to maintain dramatic tension. This particular ticking clock falls flat and the story has other events that could have been used. One is reminded of how effectively Guarding Tess utilized one during the final kidnap and rescue sequence. In better action narratives, the personal drives the drama. In American Assassin, there are personal reasons for all the drama, but they play second fiddle to McGuffins.

Similarly, many of the action sequences of American Assassin lack aesthetic and emotional punch. Fans of martial arts films know that martial arts battles are beautiful dance sequences and they require similar attention. The fight, like the dance, must tell a story and viewers must be able to see what's going on. John Wick incorporated grappling techniques into the film in order to minimize the number of cuts in an editing sequence, a choice that resulted in some very elegant fight sequences. Mitch Rapp, in both the books and in the film, is a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which has been featured in John Wick and Red Belt in some wonderful action sequences but is underused in American Assassin. Michael Cuesta's direction of the fight scenes fails to convey the dance the stunt team is providing. These scenes are over edited and confused and this more than anything is the film's biggest failing. An action film can be cliched and derivative, but the action it portrays must be compelling.

American Assassin has many of the components for a solid mid-budget franchise, but future writers and directors would do well to remember that the best action stories are personal and that fight scenes should be treated like beautiful dance numbers around which the rest of the film is structured.

Images: CBS Films

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.