BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT_poster

BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

—END—

 

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CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) – Recounts Tragic Ted Kennedy Car Crash and Subsequent Cover-up

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) tells the tragic tale of a young woman who lost her life when the car she was riding in crashed off a rickety wooden bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into the water below where, trapped inside the car, she drowned, while the drunk man at the wheel swam to safety.

The man, of course, was Senator Ted Kennedy.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells this true story through the prism of what the Kennedy name meant to the United States in 1969. It had been just over one year since Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just six years before, and all eyes were on young Ted Kennedy as the heir apparent.  JFK’s work was left unfinished, and when Robert Kennedy attempted to take up the mantle, he too was cut down.  The feeling in 1969 wasn’t so much that the Kennedys were entitled, but that their vision for the United States— one of optimism and promise— was desperately needed.  People wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president.

The problem was Ted himself wasn’t all that interested. He had lived in the shadows of his older brothers his whole life and felt the sting of a strict father who seemed to view him as much less of a man than his older brothers.  And then there was his safety to consider.  We see Ted wearing a bullet proof vest at one point.  The Ted Kennedy we see in CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a sad, somber soul, a lost soul, trying to make his way in the world, feeling unbelievable pressure to do something he didn’t really want to do, and pretty much behaving in a way that suggested he wanted to get away from it all.

And on this particular weekend in 1969 his brother John’s legacy was on full display as Neil Armstrong was about to set foot on the moon, and all the newscasts were hearkening back to JFK’s inspiring words which had propelled the space program forward in the early 1960s.

So, when the accident happened, there was a prevalent feeling to protect Ted Kennedy, not because he was wealthy and privileged, but because he was needed to continue the work of his brothers and keep the nation on a positive path.  This view was shared by both those in power on Kennedy’s side and a large portion of the general public who even after the story broke still said they would vote for him, and of course in reality they actually did.

But still, a young woman lay dead in a car submerged underwater.

Early in CHAPPAQUIDDICK, young Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) set up a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, located near Martha’s Vineyard, for the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.  It was meant to be a reunion and celebration of the work these women had done on Robert Kennedy’s behalf.

Kennedy chats with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and asks her to join his staff in Washington, D.C., but she declines, saying she doesn’t think she can handle another presidential campaign, to which Kennedy replies that she won’t have to, the implication being that he’s not going to run for president. Later in the evening, the two leave the party and take a drive into the night where they continue to chat, and as they attempt to travel to a secluded beach, the drunken Kennedy drives off the infamous bridge into the water.

He somehow manages to escape the car, and he makes his way back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe what happened.  They return to the scene of the accident, along with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they attempt unsuccessfully to extract Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle. Joe tells Ted that he must report the accident, the sooner the better, and Ted agrees. However, Ted does not report it.  Instead, he returns to his hotel room in Edgartown, and he calls his ailing father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who can barely speak, but the Kennedy patriarch does say one word to his son: alibi.

It takes ten hours before the conflicted Ted Kennedy finally decides to report the incident, and after going back and forth with what to say, admits that he was indeed the driver of the vehicle.  What follows is the tale of the cover up, the powerful advisors on one side, who are doing everything in their power to create a false narrative to save Ted’s political career, and Ted’s cousin Joe on the other side, imploring him to remember that a young woman is dead and for him to tell the truth. In the middle is a confused young Senator who seems lost throughout these events, pulled in multiple directions, conflicted between doing the right thing for himself, for his family, for his country, and for Mary Jo Kopechne. In short, he doesn’t have a clue.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells a somber story that portrays Ted Kennedy as a conflicted, confused figure. At times he comes off as sympathetic because he seems to want to do the right thing, but more often than not he’s seen as a massively frustrating figure who completely and continually botches the situation, and if not for his famous name could and most likely should have easily gone to jail for manslaughter.

But the best part of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is it tells its tale with Mary Jo Kopechne at its forefront.  Never does the movie allow its audience to forget that Mary Jo Kopechne, a promising young woman with a bright future ahead of her, lost her life that night. Worse yet, it’s quite possible she died not only because of Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving, but because he didn’t call for help immediately.  The film intimates that she survived for a while inside the vehicle before ultimately passing away.

Jason Clarke delivers a grave performance as Ted Kennedy. He portrays Kennedy with a “deer in the headlights” expression throughout.  He makes Kennedy a man who seemed completely lost and overwhelmed by the events around him. Should he listen to his father and lie? Or to his cousin Joe and tell the truth? He portrays Kennedy as a man who knows what’s expected of him because of his family name, yet seems to want to carve out his own path in life, and when this tragedy occurs, at his own hands, he goes back and forth between owning up and saving his political hide for the sake of a nation. One thing that Kennedy is not portrayed as is a cold-hearted manipulator.

Jason Clarke has delivered some fine performances in the past, in films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), but this might be his finest work yet. He captures the essense of the conflicted Kennedy so perfectly you almost can feel a migraine coming on while watching him.

I’m a huge fan of Kate Mara, and I’m still waiting for her breakout role. With very limited screen time here, this isn’t it, but she’s still excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne. In her brief time on-screen, Mara makes Mary Jo a three-dimensional character, one whose presence is felt throughout the film, even after she has drowned.

Ed Helms gives the most memorable performance in the film as Kennedy cousin and “fixer” Joe Gargan. Normally a comedic actor, Helms more than holds his own in this dramatic role. He’s the voice of reason in this story and its conscience, the voice audiences hope Ted Kennedy listens to, but ultimately that’s not what happened.

Bruce Dern also makes an impact as the gravely ill and very harsh Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy, who would die a few months after the Chappaquiddick incident. At this time, Joe Kennedy could barely speak, and as such Dern’s performance is pretty much sans dialogue.  He does manage to utter that one cold calculating word to his son over the phone, “alibi,” and later when Ted opens his heart to his father and says he’s unsure of who he is and where he’s going, but he does know he wants to be a great man, his father responds, “you’ll never be great.” Ted hugs him anyway.

Clancy Brown is memorable as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense called in to “fix” the Chappaquiddick incident.  As is Olivia Thirlby as fellow “Boiler Girl” and Mary Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff who utters the prophetic line to Ted that even Mary Jo’s parents didn’t blame him for her death, so why should America?

The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pretty much tells two stories. On the one hand, there’s the ugly tale of Kennedy’s cowardly negligence which led to the tragic death of a young woman and the subsequent cover up by the rich and powerful powers that be to save the political career of a young senator with a famous name. But there’s also the story of a nation still mourning the loss of its beloved Kennedy brothers, and how the voting public was willing to turn a blind eye on the actions of the man who they hoped would be the successor to these leaders, the younger brother, Ted Kennedy.

And in the middle of both stories, a conflicted, sad, confused, and for one fateful evening completely irresponsible Senator Ted Kennedy, who if not for his name, should have gone to jail for both his actions and inactions. Instead, he served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for over 40 years.

Director John Curran captures the salty feel of a Massachusetts island to the point where you can smell the unpleasant odor of the ocean, and it smells like death, ugly incompetence, and the vulgar actions of a political cover-up.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

RED SPARROW (2018) – Cold Spy Thriller Doesn’t Heat Up

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RED SPARROW (2018) is as cold as a Russian winter.

And for a spy thriller that is about forced prostitution, murder, and espionage, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a grisly injury while performing on stage which breaks her leg and ends her career.  Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a higher-up in the Russian Intelligence Agency, and he recruits his niece into the organization, promising her he will take care of her sick mother’s medical bills if she serves Russia as a spy. Ah, supporting the sick mother storyline!  Where have I heard that one before?  In fairness, the plot does take a more believable darker turn when good old Uncle Vanya basically threatens to kill Dominika if she doesn’t work for him.

So Dominika is enrolled in a spy training school which, as she puts it, is really a school for prostitutes, since the candidates are trained to use their bodies to get the information they need. The training includes constant humiliation and degradation. The spies who graduate from this school are referred to as “sparrows.”

Dominika is then sent into the field to make contact with an American C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who knows the identity of a Russian mole who is selling secrets to the Americans.  Dominika’s mission is to extract this information from Nash. Of course Nash being a veteran agent, is on to Dominika from the start, and he believes he can turn her to the American side.

Let the intrigue begin!  And that’s pretty much the plot of RED SPARROW.

In terms of story, RED SPARROW is as bare as an empty bird’s nest.  The main plot is pretty simplistic and not all that believable.  And the early segment involving Dominika’s humiliating training at the sparrow school is so emotionless I hardly cared. And that’s the biggest weakness of the screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews.  I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Dominika is a cold fish–obviously to survive her training she has to be— but the result is a robot-like character who I never warmed up to.

Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is the more likeable character of the two, but he’s not the main focus here, nor do we ever learn all that much about him.

The dialogue is standard and doesn’t do the characters any favors as most of the folks in this story talk like robots.  Haythe also wrote the screenplay to the horror movie  A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a movie I liked much better than RED SPARROW.

The theme that nothing happens by accident is true here, but not because of a sense of fate, but rather because the characters in this tale don’t allow anything to happen by accident.  They force, coerce, and manipulate everything.

Director Francis Lawrence fares slightly better than his script.  The film looks sufficiently dark and distressing, and the several scenes of torture in this one make their mark— literally— but again, like the movie as a whole, emotions just aren’t all that prevalent. There are some decent fight scenes, but nothing like the ones in last year’s ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) starring Charlize Theron.

Lawrence directed the last three HUNGER GAMES movies, also starring Jennifer Lawrence, and that’s pretty much where this film falls in terms of quality and feel, on par with a HUNGER GAMES sequel, and that’s not a good thing. Plus, as a spy film, it does nothing to set itself apart from other films of its type.

Jennifer Lawrence, in spite of her considerable acting talent, delivers a one-note performance here as Dominika.  She’s cold and she’s tough, and that’s about it. Obviously, Dominika had to be this way to survive the training and her ensuing mission, and so on paper Lawrence is doing what she should be doing to capture her character’s persona. But there’s nothing beneath the surface here.  We know little about Dominika before her conversion into a red sparrow spy, nor does Lawrence give us any insight into what kind of person Dominika is, other than she’s relentlessly strong-willed and resilient. But you can say the same thing about both Wonder Woman and Frances McDormand’s character Mildred in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), two very different characters who we learn a lot about in their respective movies and so we understand where they are coming from and where they are going.  Such is not the case with Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika.

Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Nate Nash, although his character is also under-written, and so  not a lot is known about him either.

The film is peppered with a strong supporting cast which helps keep this film afloat.

Matthias Schoenaerts gives one of the best performances in the film as Dominika’s uncle Vanya. He makes Vanya cold, calculating, and heartless, which pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie.

Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling plays the Matron, the no-nonsense woman in charge of training the candidates at the Sparrow school. Mary Louise Parker is memorable in a small role as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff of a prominent U.S. Senator who has secrets to sell.

Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp are memorable as Nash’s C.I.A. handlers, while Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons play top Russian intelligence officials.

And Sebastian Hulk makes for a frightening Russian torture artist who likes to peel the flesh off his victims. Slowly.

RED SPARROW has strong acting, tepid writing, and by the numbers direction. Combined with an overall emotionless feel, and a focused but uninspiring performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the result is a formulaic and often lackluster spy thriller.

Its frigid tale simply never heats up.

—END—

 

Jackie Chan Returns in THE FOREIGNER (2017)

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Jackie Chan is back, and he’s taking on Pierce Brosnan in today’s thriller, THE FOREIGNER (2017).

Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan) is a quiet store owner living in London whose world is shattered when his daughter is killed in a terrorist bomb attack.  He seeks out answers, demanding to know who killed his daughter. A group identifying itself as a new faction of the IRA claims responsibility for the London blast, and so Quan’s search leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former officer in the IRA who’s now working for the British government.

Quan isn’t the only one demanding answers.  The British government wants them, too, and Hennessy promises to find them.  He assembles a group of his IRA contacts and puts them on notice with his suspicions that someone in their circle is part of this new faction.

When Quan shows up at Hennessy’s doorstep looking for the names of the bombers, Hennessy tells him he doesn’t know who is responsible and quickly dismisses his visitor without a second thought.  But Quan is relentless, and soon he is bombing Hennessy’s home and threatening his family unless he is given the names of the terrorists.

Hennessy’s search for the terrorists leads to some  unexpected answers, while his efforts to apprehend Quan, who is a former special forces soldier, repeatedly fail.

THE FOREIGNER tells two different stories, and as such, at times seems like two different movies.

The emotional story is Quan’s, as he vows that nothing is going to stop him from finding the people responsible for his daughter’s death.

Quan Ngoc Minh is a serious somber role for Jackie Chan, and it’s not the usual lighthearted fun action role that Chan generally plays.  Quan is an older, more reflective character who goes all in to avenge his daughter’s death. Chan doesn’t play the character as unhinged but as extremely determined and focused.  He somehow manages to keep Quan a sympathetic character throughout, even when he is blowing up Hennessy’s property. It’s an impressive performance.

But while Quan’s story is emotional, it’s also just a simple revenge tale, and as such,  is far less interesting than the more intriguing story of Hennessy’s investigation into his IRA contacts.

As Liam Hennessy, the former IRA officer who’s now in the difficult position of siding with the British government, Pierce Brosnan delivers a solid performance, showing grit, determination, and eventually despair.  That’s because the deeper Hennessy digs, the more his world unravels.

Hennessy has the double whammy of learning some unsavory things about both his IRA connections and people very close to him, while being unable to fend off Quan who is hiding in the woods outside his home and is constantly attacking him.  The scenes where Hennessy expresses frustration and disbelief that his trained security detail cannot handle Quan are some of Brosnan’s best.

Both the IRA storyline and Quan’s vengeance story are dark, grim tales, but there is a disconnect between the two that prevents this movie from really taking off.  The two stories never really come together in a satisfying way.

One reason is that they are so different.  Quan’s revenge tale is right out of an old Charles Bronson movie, while Hennessy’s investigation into the depths of the IRA is more akin to a political suspense thriller.  They don’t mesh all that well, and the biggest reason for this is the film’s climax. For Quan, there’s only one solution, and in this movie just like in those Charles Bronson movies, whether or not he achieves it is never really in question, and for Hennessy, the answers he finds have less to do with what Quan wants to know and more to do with his own past.  And so their two stories aren’t exactly on a collision course with each other.  They connect, but only long enough to send each of them on their merry ways.

If you like Jackie Chan action scenes, you won’t be disappointed. Director Martin Campbell does a nice job with them, and they were probably my favorite part of the movie.  My only beef is that there weren’t enough of them.

The Hennessy scenes are taut and intriguing.  The investigation into who is behind the bombings is compelling and hard-hitting.

Director Campbell is no stranger to action thrillers.  He’s directed two James Bond movies, GOLDENEYE (1995) the first Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, and CASINO ROYALE (2006), the first Daniel Craig Bond movie.  Both films are excellent.  Campbell also directed GREEN LANTERN (2011), which was not so excellent.

David Marconi wrote the screenplay, based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather.  It’s an okay screenplay.  It has believable characters and tells two compelling stories, even if they don’t mix together all that well. Marconi also wrote the screenplay for LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007).

Chan and Brosnan are helped by a solid supporting cast.  Michael McElhatton from TV’s GAME OF THRONES (2012-2016) plays Hennessy’s loyal right hand man, Jim, while Dermot Crowley from TV’s LUTHER (2010-2015) plays Hugh McGrath, one of Hennessy’s IRA brothers who may have his own agenda.

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, a woman who Hennessy is having an affair with, and Orla Brady plays his wife Mary, who has her own issues with her husband.

And Rory Fleck Byrne is very good as Hennessy’s nephew Sean, a tracker and an assassin, who Hennessy eventually employs to find and take out Quan.

But the two best performances in THE FOREIGNER belong to the two leads, Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. Chan is excellent in a far more somber and serious role than he usually plays, and Brosnan is just as good as the increasingly beleaguered Hennessy whose world is under constant threat.

THE FOREIGNER is a decent thriller featuring two veteran actors. Its two separate stories don’t always gel, but the acting, directing, and writing are strong enough to make THE FOREIGNER an enjoyable action movie.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) – Action Tale Not Really Believable

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AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) is one of those movies that could have been so much better had it only been believable.

The trouble starts within the first few minutes of the movie.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on a picture perfect beach, but moments later, terrorists shoot up the shoreline, wiping out countless people, including Katrina.  Devastated, Mitch decides to seek vengeance, and in a Rocky-like montage, Mitch trains himself to become— an assassin!  He’s actually training to be a terrorist, so he can infiltrate the secret terrorist cell responsible for murdering his fiance.

And he does all of this with relative ease.  So, before you can say “Jason Bourne,” he infiltrates the terrorist cell responsible for killing his girlfriend and even finds himself in the same room with the man responsible for giving the order.  How convenient!

But before Mitch can finish the job, the CIA intervenes, kills the terrorists, and whisks Mitch away.  Why?  To turn him into a CIA agent of course!  He’s sent to train under the rough and tough Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) who sets out to break Mitch, but of course, you know how that turns out.  Mitch passes all the macho tests with flying colors.

The next thing you know Mitch is on Stan’s team and they’re in hot pursuit of some deadly terrorists who are intent on detonating a rather nasty bomb.  The man behind all the dastardly stuff is a shadowy figure known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who it turns out, was trained by— you got it, Stan Hurley.  Ghost is the one who got away, the one who felt Stan betrayed him, and so now it’s up to Stan’s latest protegé, Mitch, to take on the old protege, Ghost.  Ten cents says you can figure out how that confrontation will turn out.

As I said, very little of this one is believable.

For starters, I simply did not buy Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp.  O’Brien, who stars in the MAZE RUNNER movies, was chosen for the role specifically because he’s young, and there are plans to turn this movie into a film series since Mitch Rapp is a recurring character in a series of best-selling novels by Vince Flynn.

But I thought he was too young here.  The idea that he could stand up to Michael Keaton’s Stan Hurley was never believable.  O’Brien just was never convincing as a tough assassin.

On the other hand, Michael Keaton was very convincing as the rock solid Stan Hurley, but Hurley is not the main character here, and there’s only so much Keaton could do here to help this movie along.

Taylor Kitsch was sufficient at Ghost, but Shiva Negar delivered a more memorable performance as fellow agent Annika.  I liked the chemistry she shared with Dylan O’Brien.  This part of the movie was believable.

Likewise, Sanaa Lathan was also very good as CIA agent Irene Kennedy, the woman who recruits Mitch and then struggles to control him.

This one was written by four screenwriters.  Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz all worked on this screenplay adaptation of the novel by Vince Flynn, and they all have a decent number of writing credits, too.  It didn’t really seem to help all that much here, though.

Michael Cuesta directed with mixed results.  I liked the opening terrorist attack scene on the beach, which I thought was a jarring way to open the movie, but subsequent action scenes didn’t pack the same punch.

There’s a torture scene which isn’t as effective as it should have been.  When Ghost captures his former boss Stan Hurley, he tortures him for information, but the trouble is, Stan is just too tough for this sort of thing.  Michael Keaton has a field day in this scene which if it wasn’t so violent would have been comical.  Keaton follows each brutal method of torture with a wisecrack and a grunt.  Things get so bad for the villain Ghost that he nearly throws a hissy fit.

I went to see AMERICAN ASSASSIN specifically because I wanted to see Michael Keaton.  I knew going in that he wasn’t playing the lead, and he does a fine job in a supporting role. But truth be told, this one would have been much better had Keaton been playing a lead role.

I see lots of action movies.  The really good ones make you forget they’re telling an impossible story.  They’re convincing in their execution.  The lesser ones simply go through the motions.

AMERICAN ASSASSIN clearly falls into the latter category.  It expends little or no effort in convincing its audience that any of it could be true.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JASON BOURNE (2016) – Fifth Film in “Bourne” Franchise Repetitive

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Jason Bourne.  Jason Bourne.  Jason Bourne.

Does that sound repetitive?  Welcome to my problem with today’s movie, JASON BOURNE (2016), the fifth film in the Jason Bourne series, the fourth starring Matt Damon.

I mean, how many movies will it take for Jason Bourne to stop looking into his past and move on to something new?  Apparently more than four, because this is Matt Damon’s fourth turn as the character and he’s still searching for answers.  Yawn.

Which is too bad because I’m a fan of the Bourne series.  I loved the first one, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002) and enjoyed the next two as well, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004) and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007).  I even enjoyed the one without Damon, which starred Jeremy Renner, THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012).  That being said, with each  successive film I grew wearier of their plots which were pretty much variations of the same premise- Jason Bourne coming out of hiding to learn the truth about his past and make life miserable for whichever nasty good-for-nothing CIA chief  was in power at the time.

I’m sorry to say that this newest film in the series, JASON BOURNE– hey, how about that title?  Score one for creativity! Let’s call this one– Jason Bourne!— offers nothing new and  is exactly what I just described.  It’s just hard to get excited about a movie in a series with the same exact plot of the films which came before it.

So here we go.  In JASON BOURNE, former CIA operative Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is once more looking for answers about his past, this time about his deceased father’s involvement in his CIA recruitment.  So once again Bourne comes out of hiding, and this time the CIA heavy who’s out to stop him in order to prevent Bourne from exposing their secret programs is CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).

Dewey is assisted by his young protege, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), although as the story goes along, it becomes clear that the two don’t see eye to eye, as Dewey sees Heather as inexperienced, and Heather views Dewey as a dinosaur, and so both deal with Bourne on their own terms.

They also have at their disposal an assassin named Asset (Vincent Cassel) who has a history with Bourne and is only too happy to be the man asked to eliminate the former CIA operative.

The plot in this one revolves around Dewey’s shady dealings with a young social media mogul named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed).  Dewey basically wants to use Kalloor’s technology to spy on eveyone, and this secret alliance is endangered when Bourne in his search for answers about himself uncovers information about this union.

JASON BOURNE gets off to a rather slow start as the first half of this film could have been directly lifted from any of the previous films and I wouldn’t have noticed.  Nothing in the opening of this movie drew me in or got me excited about what was to come.  I felt like I was watching the films I had already seen.

Things eventually do get better as finally the film begins to take on its own identity.  About the time Bourne gets to London things pick up with one of the film’s better sequences where Bourne outsmarts both Dewey and Heather’s forces.  It’s also about the time when it’s clear that Dewey and Heather are not working together, which is one of the more interesting dynamics of the film.  And that’s because Heather is one of the more compelling characters in the movie, although she certainly is far from original.  Most of this interest comes from Alicia Vikander’s performance.

The cast is decent.  I’ve always enjoyed Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, but his performance here is like the rest of the movie:  nothing I haven’t seen before.  This movie is just screaming for a different plot.  Put Jason Bourne in a different situation, for crying out loud!  Have him try to save the world or something!  Does he have to be stuck in the same God-forsaken plot in every Bourne movie?  Apparently so.  There’s nothing wrong with Damon’s performance, but the character does the same things he did in the previous films.  He doesn’t even have any memorable lines.

The best peformance in the movie, hands down, belongs to Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee.  Vikander made a big splash in the science fiction film EX MACHINA (2015).  She also starred in THE DANISH GIRL (2015), and I liked her a lot in the underrated THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)  She’s excellent here once again.  Granted, there’s nothing all that special about her character, Heather Lee.  But Vikander gives her a nice combination of icy professionalism with chiseled sexuality.

Tommy Lee Jones is actually very good as CIA Director Robert Dewey.  He makes Dewey quite the despicable villain, and he does it effortlessly, as you would expect from someone with Jones’ talent and experience.  It’s just too bad the character is the same exact type of CIA villain that all the Bourne films have had.

And Vincent Cassel makes for a formidable foe for Jason Bourne as the assassin Asset, but since the title of the is film is JASON BOURNE, there’s little doubt as to which character will have the upper hand here.

JASON BOURNE was directed by Paul Greengrass, who directed the second and third films in the series, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM.  If he succeeds at anything it’s making the films look consistent.  The style for all these films is the same.

There are the expected action scenes, but I was actually disappointed with the film’s centerpiece action sequence, the high speed chase through the streets of Las Vegas, where they destroy about 50 million cars along the way!  Seriously, it’s insane how many cars they wipe out during this chase.  All without any bloodshed.  Imagine that!  I should have loved this scene, but it was edited with such quick edits that I often found the action happening too quickly, so much so that I almost had to turn away at times.  It was a case where I was noticing the camerawork which is not a good thing.  Had the camera moved in close to the action and remained there, rather than  cutting this way and that, the scene would have had a grittier more realistic feel.  As is, it plays like a swiftly edited television commercial.

The fight sequences were okay, but they certainly didn’t blow me out of the water.

The screenplay by director Greengrass and Christopher Rouse was meh.  The biggest knock against it is it’s just not original.  It’s a rehash of all Bourne films which came before it.  The dialogue is nothing special either.  Of course, their screenplay is based upon characters created by Robert Ludlum in his Bourne novels.   So, I suppose one could argue that they were simply being true to the spirit of the Ludlum novels by not shaking things up here in their latest Bourne movie.  I don’t know about that.

I do know, that this film would have been a better movie if, in the words of that other more famous spy from the other side of the ocean, its plot and its characters had been shaken, not stirred.

 —END—

Bryan Cranston Leads the Way in THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

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infiltrator poster

If you’re a Bryan Cranston fan, you’ll love THE INFILTRATOR (2016).

THE INFILTRATOR tells the true story of how U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) took on the drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar and won. It’s 1986, the heart of the “War on Drugs” as waged by then President Ronald Reagan, and Mazur comes up with the idea to take down the drug lords not by going after the drugs but by following the money.

And so Mazur and his partner Emir (John Leguizamo) set up an elaborate money laundering scheme where Mazur impersonates a Mafia money guy in order to infiltrate the drug business.  They work their way to the higher-ups, which in this case means a man named Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and of course the ultimate prize of Pablo Escobar.

Along the way they meet with their share of undesirables, and the stakes grow increasingly high, as Mazur and his “wife” Kathy (Diane Kruger) infiltrate Alcaino’s home and family.  One false slip of the tongue and they’re dead.

THE INFILTRATOR is a well-made and highly entertaining movie.

While there’s lots to like about this one, the best thing is the acting, led by Bryan Cranston. While it may not be as crafted an effort as the one Cranston gave in TRUMBO (2015), nor as powerful as his five season stint on BREAKING BAD (2008-2013), it’s still a thoroughly captivating and entertaining performance.  Cranston gives Mazur an admirable confidence without sacrificing his vulnerablities and fears that go with the territory.

Cranston has that presence where he can hold your attention the entire time he’s on screen.  While there were many things I enjoyed about THE INFILTRATOR, the main reason I enjoyed it was because of Bryan Cranston.

The rest of the acting is also very good.  John Leguizamo is a natural as Mazur’s wisecracking unpredictable partner Emir.  It’s always fun to see Leguizamo when he’s not voicing Sid in the ICE AGE movies.

The women here also fare very well.  I really enjoyed Diane Kruger as fellow agent Kathy Ertz who joins the undercover ruse as Mazur’s wife.  She becomes a prominent player in the second half of the film, and she’s excellent.

Juliet Aubrey is also very good as Mazur’s real wife Evelyn.  She takes what could have been a cliched role- the worried wife- and makes her a three-dimensional and very sympathetic character.

Benjamin Bratt makes the most of his brief screen time as drug cartel leader Roberto Alcaino.  While there’s little doubt that Alcaino is a dangerous man, Bratt surprises in how sympathetic and likeable he makes Alcaino, making Mazur and Kathy more uncomfortable the more they get to know him, because they grow to like him.

Elena Anaya is equally as good as Alcaino’s wife Gloria.  Like Alcaino, she welcomes Mazur and Kathy into her family, adding to the difficulty of their continuing the sting.

The film is loaded with all sorts of unsavory characters, and as a result there are a bunch of noteworthy supporting performances here.  Among them are Yul Vazquez as bisexual drug man Javier Ospina who can’t seem to take his hands off anyone in the movie, especially the men.  It’s a weird and mesmerizing performance by Vasquez as there’s something almost vampire-like about Ospina.  And in a neat movie homage, at one point in the film Ospina mentions THE GODFATHER movies, and later, when he learns the truth about Mazur, he tells him, “You broke my heart,” which is the famous line uttered by Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to his brother Fredo when he learns his brother betrayed him in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974).  It’s not clear that Mazur gets the reference, but the audience does, making the moment frightening and menacing.

Speaking of vampires, Joseph Gilgun plays a lively character named Dominic, a convict who Mazur springs from jail so he can act as his personal protector.  Dominic is there to watch Mazur’s back, and he does.  Gilgun curently plays a vampire on the frenetic TV show PREACHER (2016), a nutty character named Cassidy, and Gilgun is just as wild here in THE INFILTRATOR.

And Olympia Dukakis is wonderful in two key scenes as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, the latter where she also gets to take part in the sting operation.

Director Brad Furman previously made RUNNER RUNNER (2013), a thriller starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, and THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011),  a drama starring Matthew McConaughey, both okay movies.  I enjoyed THE LINCOLN LAWYER better than RUNNER RUNNER which struggled to remain believable.  THE INFILTRATOR is probably his best movie yet, a stronger film than these other two.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Ellen Sue Brown, based on the book by Robert Mazur.  In addition to the obvious drug war plot, the story also makes a point of painting a sympathetic portrait of drug villains Roberto and Gloria Alcaino.  They speak of family and loyalty, and they welcome Mazur and Kathy into their home.  At one point, Roberto asks Mazur who the biggest money launderer in the United States is, and he tells Mazur it’s the U.S. government, which while publically waging the war on drugs, privately welcomes drug money into its banks.

The film also makes a point of including bank executives as the villains here.  We see top bank officials listen to Mazur tell them point blank that his money comes from cocaine dealers, and yet they don’t bat an eye.  They simply welcome the money.  So, there is definitely an anti-business/banking element to this story, a la THE BIG SHORT (2015).

While the plot is not overly complicated- U.S. Customs official sets up sting to take down drug cartel- there are a ton of characters in this film, coming and going at any given time, and so one really has to pay attention or else risk being lost.

The actual pace is somewhat slow.  Do not see THE INFILTRATOR expecting an action movie.  It’s not.  It’s a drama and a thriller.  It’s also a movie where the dialogue drives the tension, and  most of the suspense comes from this dialogue, as you keep expecting Mazur and his fellow agents to say the wrong thing and then pay the price.

The film takes place in 1986 but curiously the hairstyles, clothes, and look of the whole thing reminded me of a decade earlier, 1976!  The grainy print gives the film  an authentic feel, but of the 1970s not the 1980s.  I felt like I was watching SERPICO (1973) rather than MIAMI VICE.

But these are small matters.

I really enjoyed THE INFILTRATOR.  It’s a nail-biting suspense drama and showcase for the acting talents of Bryan Cranston and a stellar supporting cast.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout.

—END—