Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: American Assassin (dir by Michael Cuesta)


Probably the best thing about American Assassin is how simple it is.

The film opens on the beach, with Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) asking his girlfriend to marry him.  No sooner has she accepted than suddenly, terrorists are washing up on the beach and, in a genuinely frightening scene, shooting everyone that they see.  Mitch is wounded.  His girlfriend is killed.

Mitch seeks revenge against the man who killed his “future wife” (to borrow a phrase from The Room) but U.S. Special Forces kill the terrorist seconds before Mitch gets the chance.  However, the CIA is so impressed, by Mitch’s single-minded and obsessive desire for revenge, that they recruit him to join Orion, a black ops unit.  Under the guidance of grizzled veteran, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), Mitch becomes an American assassin.  His first mission?  To stop a renegade mercenary known as the Ghost (Taylor Kitsch).

In many ways, American Assassin feels like a throwback to the action films of the early aughts.  There’s none of the moral ambiguity of the Bourne films and Mitch Rapp never indulges in any of the self-loathing that’s marred the Daniel Craig James Bond films.  Remember how Bond got drunk and tried to interrogate that rat in SPECTRE?  Judging from American Assassin, that’s something Mitch Rapp would never do.  And, if he ever did, Stan Hurley would probably tell him to stop whining and get back to work.

In American Assassin, the bad guys are undoubtedly the bad guys and the good guys are undoubtedly the good guys and, while that may not be the approach that leads to Academy Awards and overwhelming critical acclaim, it still makes for an undeniably entertaining movie.  Director Michael Cuesta does a good job with the action scenes and he gets good performances from the entire cast.  Taylor Kitsch is far more compelling as a villain than he ever was in any of his heroic roles and, not surprisingly, Michael Keaton steals the whole show as the tough but caring Stan Hurley.  Michael Keaton is definitely one of the best actors working today.  He can slide seamlessly from a prestige drama like Spotlight to an action film like American Assassin to a comic book film like Spider-Man: Homecoming and he can do it without missing a beat.  Those are three very different films and Keaton was the best thing in all of them.

And, finally, we have Dylan O’Brien.  Last year, as we all know, O’Brien was seriously injured while filming the third Maze Runner film.  At the time, it was announced that O’Brien’s injuries were “substantial but not life threatening” but I know there was a feeling that his career might be over.  Even though American Assassin was not his first film since getting injured, it was his first starring role and I have to admit that it was good to see O’Brien back and looking good.  O’Brien brought a lot of gravity to the role of Mitch Rapp.  He had the haunted look of a man obsessed with revenge.  When I saw O’Brien in The Maze Runner and, before that, in Teen Wolf, I thought he was a pleasant young actor but, in American Assassin, he gives his most mature performance to date.  With American Assassin, Dylan O’Brien grows up.

As I said, American Assassin is a simple film.  There’s not much going on beneath the surface and it you’re looking for anything deeper than pure entertainment, you might want to look elsewhere.  American Assassin is what it is and makes no apologies.  What it does, it does well.

Music Video of the Day: Runaway by Bon Jovi (1984, dir. Michael Cuesta)


Back to the book, I Want My MTV, again. One thing I’d like to make clear before I start is that if there is one group that dominates that book, then it’s Bon Jovi.

Doc McGhee [managed Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions, and Skid Row at the height of each band’s career]: I’d just starting to manage Bon Jovi when we did the video for “Runaway.” There’s a chubby girl who’s a runaway, but she has laser eyes, and the band is playing in a warehouse that’s burning. In the ’80s, every video had to look like Escape from New York. Something had to be on fire, and you had to be in an alley that was wet, or else you couldn’t shoot a video.

Seen here! A chubby girl.

Also, lasers!

Okay, so McGhee’s memory might not be so good. I can give him a break on both counts. I have to imagine that in 1984, he was bombarded with so many models trying out for these parts that Jennifer Gatti actually does look chubby reaching back around 30 years in his mind.

You might know Gatti from playing Ba’el on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Star Trek: The Next Generation — Birthright, Part II (1993)

Cut to a few years later after the rocky start with Runaway:

Doc McGhee: I mean, MTV was playing so much Mötley and Bon Jovi, I’d have to tell them, “You’re overexposing my artists. If you don’t take them off the air, I’m not going to give you another video.” I was fighting to get less airplay, not more.

Len Epand [was a video production executive for PolyGram Records]: Once Bon Jovi established a winning style on “Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” we pulled their prior videos out of circulation. They were all deemed embarrassing, or at least not the right image. We notified all video outlets, including MTV, that they were no longer licensed for use. I doubt they ever appeared on broadcast again.

Luckily, the video is up officially on YouTube. While not being fond of the video, the band apparently still plays the song during concerts. It’s on the greatest hits album of there’s that I have. I can understand why they pulled this video back then. They had hit on a winning image with videos like Livin’ On A Prayer. They ran that formula into the ground, but still, it worked.

Len Epand: For “Runaway,” we used a commercial director named Michael Cuesta, who had no music-video experience.

I can’t only find one other credit for Cuesta–Crow Dog (1979). I’m not even sure that entry on IMDb is him because there is another Michael Cuesta who has been successful as a producer and director.

Bob Montgomery (Robert Mont) was the producer. I can only find a couple of music video credits for him.

Enjoy!

Insomina File No. 16: Kill The Messenger (dir by Michael Cuesta)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Kill_the_Messenger_poster

Last night, if you were awake and unable to get any sleep at 1:45 in the morning, you could have turned over to Cinemax and watched the 2014 conspiracy thriller, Kill The Messenger.

Kill The Messenger opens with one of those title cards that assures us that the movie we’re about to see is based on a true story.  We are then introduced to Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a California-based reporter who we know is a rebel because he has a precisely trimmed goatee.  Gary is interviewing a suspected drug smuggler (Robert Patrick) at the smuggler’s luxurious mansion.  Suddenly, the DEA storms the house, shouting insults and roughly throwing everyone to the ground, including Gary.  It’s actually exciting and promising opening, one that perfectly establishes both Gary as a truth seeker and the U.S. government as an invading army that’s fighting a war that’s full of collateral damage.

Gary, of course, has nothing to do with smuggling drugs.  He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If he was treated unfairly by the DEA, it’s just because the government is serious about winning the war on drugs!

Or is it?

Following up on a tip, Gary comes across evidence that, in order to raise money for pro-Amercian rebels in Central America, the CIA not only helped to smuggle drugs into the U.S. but also arranged for the drugs to largely be sold in poor, minority neighbors where, in theory, no one would notice or care.

When the story is finally published, Gary is briefly a celebrity.  Not surprisingly, the government denies his accusations and start tying to discredit him.  However, Gary also finds himself being targeted by his fellow journalists.  Angry over being outscooped by a relatively unknown reporter, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post both launch their own investigations.  Instead of investigating Gary’s allegations, they jealously and viciously investigate Gary himself.

Soon, both Gary’s career and his family are falling apart and Gary finds himself growing more and more paranoid…

Remember when everyone was expecting Kill The Messenger to be a really big deal?  It was due to come out towards the end of 2014, right in the middle of Oscar season.  Jeremy Renner was being talked up as a contender for best actor.  Then the film came out, it played in a handful of theaters for a week or two, and then it sunk into obscurity.  Some commentators even complained that Focus Features buried the release of Kill The Messenger and that the film was ignored because of its leftist politics…

Of course, it’s just as probable that Focus Features realized that The Theory of Everything was more likely to charm audiences than a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic.

Or it could have just been that, despite telling a potentially intriguing story, Kill The Messenger was an oddly bland film.  Other than one scene in which he admits to cheating on his wife, Gary Webb is portrayed as being such a saint that it actually causes the film to lose credibility.  (Don’t get me wrong.  For all I know, he was a saint.  But, from a cinematic point of view, sainthood is never compelling.)  This is one of those earnest films that gets so heavy-handed that, even if you agree with what the movie is saying, you still resent being manipulated.  (Of course, some of us have grown so cynical about the media that we automatically doubt the veracity any movie that opens with those dreaded words: “Based on a true story.”)  Watching Kill The Messenger, one gets the feeling that a documentary about Gary Webb would probably be more compelling (and convincing) than a fictionalized dramatization.

(Unfortunately, if you think it’s difficult to get an audience to watch a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic, just try to get them to watch a documentary about … well, anything.  I know most of our readers would probably happily watch a documentary but that’s because y’all are the best and a thousand times better than the average person.  Love you!)

Here’s what did work about Kill The Messenger: the performances.  Jeremy Renner, who also produced this film, gives an excellent performance as Gary, especially in the scenes where he realizes that both the government and the press are now conspiring about him.  Rosemarie DeWitt has the traditionally thankless role of being the supportive wife but she still does a good job.  And finally, Ray Liotta shows up for one scene and is absolutely chilling in that way that only Ray Liotta can be.

Kill The Messenger doesn’t quite work but, thanks to the cast, it is, at the very least, a watchable misfire.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace