American Assassin

For inSing

AMERICAN ASSASSIN 

Director : Michael Cuesta
Cast : Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Navid Negahban, Scott Adkins
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 18 October 2017
Rating : NC16

The best-selling Mitch Rapp spy thriller series of novels by the late Vince Flynn has had a long journey to cinemas. Rapp makes the leap from page to screen as played by Dylan O’Brien. After a personal tragedy leaves Rapp scarred and relentlessly seeking revenge against a terrorist cell, he is noticed by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). Kennedy places Rapp under the tutelage of Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a tough operative active during the Cold War who puts Rapp through his paces. Rapp succeeds, becoming an agent of the top-secret black-ops unit Orion. Alongside Turkish-based American agent Annika (Shiva Negar), Rapp and Hurley must foil an impending attack when 15 kg of weapons-grade plutonium is stolen from a decommissioned Russian nuclear facility. They face off against “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), a rogue former Navy SEAL and Orion operative with a grudge against his mentor, who just happens to be Stan Hurley.

Consent to Kill, the sixth book in the Mitch Rapp series, was originally meant to be the first to be adapted to film. Gerard Butler, Colin Farrell, Matthew Fox and Chris Hemsworth were rumoured to be in contention for the role. American Assassin was chosen to be adapted instead – it’s the tenth book in the series, but is a prequel, and details how Rapp became a spy.

With various book-to-film spy movie franchises out there, including the Jason Bourne, James Bond and Jack Ryan series, American Assassin needs to set itself apart from the pack. Unfortunately, director Michael Cuesta does an inadequate job where that’s concerned. The film doesn’t hold back on the violence, and superficially stands out from its less explicit PG-13 cousins in this genre. However, the character motivations and dynamics at play will be abundantly familiar to anyone who’s seen a couple of spy thrillers. Especially because this film is meant to kick off a series, it’s to its detriment that American Assassin is so unmemorable.

There’s a fair amount of globe-trotting, with scenes set in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Italy. While some moments are visceral enough thanks to the brutality on display, American Assassin never generates sufficient excitement. The climactic sequence is unexpectedly spectacular but also ridiculous, a visual effects-heavy set piece that feels out of place in what is meant to be a grimy, bloody thriller.

O’Brien, star of the Maze Runner series, dials down the boyish charm and turns up the intensity to play a determined, reckless and ruthless young spy. He’s bulked up for the role and looks to be taking things very seriously, but O’Brien can’t help but come off as a little boring at times, when Rapp is meant to be unpredictable and dangerous.

Keaton is in the stage of his career where he’s playing mentor roles, and this is one that he could have easily phoned in. Instead, he delivers an energetic, hard-edged performance. However, even an actor of Keaton’s calibre would have a tough time making lines like “the enemy dresses like a deer and kills like a lion, which is what we’ve got to do” work. The fraught relationship between mentor and mentee has the makings of something electric, but does not develop in a meaningful way.

As the primary antagonist, Kitsch has a difficult time being scary. The villain being a former student of the mentor figure who has since gone rogue is about a cliché a route to go as it gets. O’Brien looks a little like Kitsch, which seems like an intentional way of highlighting that this is how Rapp could wind up if Hurley isn’t careful. Beyond that, the casting doesn’t quite work.

American Assassin lacks the nuance to be taken seriously, but is also too dour to be enjoyed as over-the-top fun. This is a film that wants to be topical – after all, Michael Cuesta directed four episodes of the political thriller TV show Homeland – but American Assassin is more preoccupied with rehashing spy movie tropes than real-world geopolitics.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Kill The Messenger

For F*** Magazine

KILL THE MESSENGER

Director : Michael Cuesta
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Andy García
Genre : Biography/Crime/Drama
Rating : NC-16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language) 
Run time: 112 mins
The archetype of the “intrepid reporter” has always had its allure and while we’re gripped by thrilling stories of journalists who will chase a story at any cost, it’s easy to forget that in real life, situations like this don’t often end well. It is 1996 and Gary Webb (Renner) is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who uncovers a shocking connection between the CIA and drug-runners in Nicaragua. He writes “Dark Alliance”, a three-part exposé for the newspaper that grabs the nation’s attention. The African-American community in particular is angered by the possibility that the CIA intentionally introduced crack cocaine into their communities. Soon, the scrutiny that comes from life in the spotlight proves to be more than Webb, his wife Susan (DeWitt) and their three children can take as he feels his life is in danger.

            Kill the Messenger is adapted from Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb as well as Webb’s own Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, an expansion of his articles. Like other conspiracy thrillers that examine the cost of uncovering the truth, Kill the Messenger is driven by a righteous indignation and has the David and Goliath aspect of a reporter from a small local newspaper going up against the CIA. Director Michael Cuesta has dealt with similar subject matter directing episodes of the TV series Homeland. There is a sense that he is striving not to over-sensationalise the actual events that took place but perhaps as result of this, the second half of the film lacks the propulsive urgency promised in the first half.

            The film places a fair amount of focus on Webb’s family life and how his pursuit of the truth behind the CIA’s alleged partnership with the Contras in Central America affected them. We see his exuberance slowly fade as he slides towards a meltdown as much of the journalism community turns against him and the big boys at the L.A. Times and the Washington Post become ravenously envious of his scoop. It feels as if a good chunk of what made the real-life case so compelling has been omitted from the film. Ideally, a thriller should pull one in deeper and deeper as it progresses, but Kill the Messenger hits a disappointing plateau midway through.

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            Director Cuesta claims that in this film, Jeremy Renner delivers his best performance since The Hurt Locker and he’s pretty much right. Renner can’t quite seem to attain A-list action hero status despite appearing a number of popcorn movies over the last few years and perhaps projects in this vein are what he should be pursuing. There’s a charisma and hunger as well as a dash of idealism that Renner doesn’t overplay and it is truly crushing when we see things start to collapse before Webb’s eyes. The supporting cast is studded with semi-recognizable-to-pretty-famous faces including Oliver Platt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen and Andy García. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosemarie DeWitt, as Webb’s editor and wife respectively, are especially convincing and their performances contribute to Kill the Messenger’s credibility as an account of actual events.

            Kill the Messenger brings an event and a personal story that has been largely forgotten by the public back to the forefront. Gary Webb died in 2004 from being shot twice in the head; this was ruled a suicide. There are still lessons to be learnt from Webb’s story, particularly for those interested in investigative journalism. While Kill the Messenger is admirable in how it doesn’t turn the whole thing into an overblown melodrama, it slides a little in the opposite direction, rendering its subject matter not quite as compellingly as it could have.

SUMMARY: While Jeremy Renner puts in an excellent performance, Kill the Messenger doesn’t dig deep enough into its subject matter and falls short of being a searing account of journalist Gary Webb’s ordeal.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong