Tag Archives: C

AMERICAN ASSASSIN

Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler
Director: Michael Cuesta
Writer: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz
Stars: Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitch, David Suchet, Navid Negahban, Scott Adkins, Charlotte Vega, Joseph Long, Mohammad Bakri, Tolga Safer, Khalid Laith, Sharif Dorani, Vladimir Friedman and Shahid Ahmed
Studio: CBS Films/Lionsgate

C

Had “American Assassin” been made twenty or thirty years ago, the villains would have been of different national origin, and the star would have been a beefy fellow like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone rather than a trim young dude like Dylan O’Brien, but the basic plot outline would have been the same. Despite the updating, the movie is essentially a boilerplate action flick following a template that hasn’t changed much for decades, and while efficiently made, it holds no surprises.

O’Brien, who began his career as a sidekick on MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and then took on the lead in the “Maze Runner” franchise, stars as Mitch Rapp, a young American wounded by gun-wielding Libyan terrorists at a resort on Ibiza; their vicious leader Mansur (Shahid Ahmed) takes particular pleasure in killing Katrina (Charlotte Vega), the girlfriend to whom Mitch has just proposed. Single-mindedly determined to avenge her death, Rapp devotes his days to becoming a martial-arts killing machine and learning Arabic to contact Mansur’s group online and offer his services as a warrior. (His commitment is shown by the fact that he neglects to shave, winding up with a thick black beard.) He is finally successful in getting invited to the villains’ lair, but before he can take his vengeance, U.S. special forces intervene to slaughter the cell. It seems the CIA has been following Rapp’s e-mail and tracked him to the group’s hideout.

The question now is what to do with the self-trained vigilante. The Agency’s Deputy Director, Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), sees him as a potential recruit for their black ops force, and despite doubts by Director Stansfield (David Suchet), she’s allowed to place him with hard-boiled field operative Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) in his remote camp. After some rather cursory training, Rapp is picked by Stan, along with fellow trainee Victor, to join him on a mission to track down a stolen shipment of plutonium and a mysterious key (the plot’s MacGuffin) that will allow it to be used as a thermonuclear device. The job will take them to Turkey, where they will join beautiful long-time operative Annika (Shiva Negar) to deal with the arms dealer planning to sell the items to some shadowy buyers, who just might be connected to a trio of Iranian officials (Mohammad Bahri, Navid Negahban and Joseph Long).

In the ensuing mayhem—which takes the team from Anatolia to Rome—Rapp proves to be a loose cannon who disobeys orders. But wouldn’t you know it, his insubordination always bears a beneficial result. As to the villains, it turns out there are good Iranians (those who support the nuclear treaty) and bad ones (those who don’t), but the ultimate bad guy is an American, once Hurley’s top protégé whom Stan left behind after a botched job and was presumed dead. “The Ghost,” as he’s called, is played by Taylor Kitsch and is mighty miffed that his mentor abandoned him.

Among the delights that “American Assassin” has in store in the later reels are double-crosses, an extended fight in a hotel suite, the near-fatal bathtub drowning of a suspected traitor, a protracted torture scene with fingernails in jeopardy, a car chase, an encounter with some vicious dogs, a one-on-one with a brute in a fancy penthouse, a fistfight aboard an out-of-control speedboat, a helicopter rescue and—just to top it all off—a nuclear explosion at sea than threatens to destroy the entire Sixth Fleet. But not to worry: the world is saved.

Michael Cuesta, whose earlier work had a much more cerebral slant (check out his debut film, the remarkable “L.I.E.,” which also featured Paul Dano in his first major role), manages the action efficiently enough—with the help, no doubt, of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, editor Conrad Buff IV, and what must have been a small army of stunt coordinators and stuntmen, as well as a substantial visual effects staff. His work with the actors, on the other hand, shows little of the sensitivity he’s exhibited in the past. But characters like Rapp, Hurley and Ghost are intended to be big, broad types, and O’Brien, Keaton and Kitsch respond accordingly. As for the other villains and red herrings, they serve their purposes in the elaborate cross-global board game that’s not challenging enough to be compared to chess. Checkers is more like it.

Come to think of it, “American Assassin” doesn’t seem like a modern equivalent of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone blockbuster from the distant past, but of their chintzier cousins—like the “American Ninja” movies with low-rent replacement Michael Dudikoff. It’s worth remembering that the movie is based on one of a series of books about Mitch Rapp by Vince Flynn, and could spawn a series of its own. Maybe we’ll be watching Dylan grow for some time in this role; if so, let’s hope the future scripts mature with him.

THE GOOD CATHOLIC

Producer: John Robert Armstrong, Graham Sheldon and Zachary Spicer
Director: Paul Shoulberg
Writer: Paul Shoulberg
Stars: Zachary Spicer, Wrenn Schmidt, Danny Glover and John C. McGinley
Studio: Broad Green Films

C

A young Catholic priest questions his vocation in Paul Shoulberg’s earnest but overly schematic and ultimately ineffectual comedy-drama. Though designed as a tribute of sorts to his father, who left the priesthood and married, Shoulberg’s film never really rings true, either in its central plot device or the secondary elements surrounding it.

The picture is set at a parish in Bloomington, Indiana, where Father Daniel (Zachary Spicer) serves as assistant to the pastor, Father Victor (Danny Glover). Also resident in the rectory, rather bewilderingly, is Brother Ollie (John C. McGinley), a Franciscan friar who also serves as an assistant to Father Victor. The very set-up undermines credibility; at a time of a severe priest shortage, it’s highly unlikely that any parish would be so generously staffed. (The screenplay also seems unaware that Bloomington is part of the archdiocese of Indianapolis, since it refers to “the bishop” at several points.)

The unusual staffing arrangement is necessary to Shoulberg’s plot, however, because Victor and Ollie represent the extremes of opinion that Daniel is constantly hearing from. They’re like Fathers Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and O’Malley (Bing Crosby) in “Going My Way,” with the former representing the tradition-bound “old school” priesthood and the latter the newer, looser one. (Ollie is a Franciscan, presumably, so that he can remind people of the current pope, a bobble-head of whom he keeps on the dashboard of his car.) While Victor is the stern dogmatist, Ollie opts for ultra-gregarious relevance, as demonstrated in his “with it” leadership of the parish choir.

Daniel is caught between these two poles of priestly conduct, but he can cope with that. His real problem comes when Jane (Warren Schmidt) walks in on the Friday-evening confession period “the bishop” has mandated and Daniel, low man on the roster, is assigned. She’s a sharp-tongued thing, a singer-slash-waitress at a local coffee house who claims to be dying and, unaccustomed to the whole sacrament business, just needs somebody to vent to. Daniel listens, and as she visits him repeatedly, she begins prodding him to talk about his feelings, too. Among them, we sense, is a growing interest in her—and not one of a purely spiritual sort.

Thus begins Daniel’s search within himself. Did he enter the priesthood merely to please his late father, an old friend of Victor’s? Did he ever really have a vocation at all? Certainly these questions would have been thrashed out over the many years he would have spent in seminary, but Jane’s intervention seems to have raised in his mind, for the very first time, the question of whether he is “seeing God” as Victor inelegantly puts it, and sends him into emotional turmoil.

Spicer registers a great deal of suffering as Daniel confronts his personal demons, waking up in night sweats and grimacing during his morning jog, and neither the legalism of Victor nor the camaraderie of Ollie provides a sufficient answer. A particularly poisonous moment occurs when Daniel invites Jane for dinner at the rectory and Victor peppers her with uncomfortable questions while Ollie interrupts with inane remarks apparently designed to defuse the tension. By this time Victor is obviously concerned with the change in Daniel’s attitude and anxious to address his issues. In the end, though, it will be Daniel who has to make the decision about his future.

Spicer certainly brings commitment to the young priest, though he does tend to wear his heart on his sleeve. Glover is severe and intense, though he does loosen up a bit at the end, while McGinley, not known for restraint under the best of circumstances, goes the manic route with mixed effect. The really weak link, however, is Schmidt. Her character isn’t well developed in any event, but the actress’ shrill delivery makes her much less sympathetic a figure than was apparently intended. The production is of modest indie quality, with the cinematography (by Justin Montgomery) and editing (Kevin Weaver) only average.

“The Good Catholic” doesn’t really fit into the “faith-based” category, but it isn’t sufficiently compelling to please mainstream audiences either. It may have been a labor of love for Shoulberg—perhaps a plea to reconsider the issue of clerical celibacy—but most viewers probably won’t be moved to much affection for it.