American Made (Liman; 2017)

Doug Liman, the director of this latest Tom Cruise vehicle, has a fairly hit or miss career as a director to date.  The Bourne Identity is now a classic which revitalized and revolutionized the spy genre, Swingers is a cult comedy classic, and Edge of Tomorrow (also titled Live, Die, Repeat in one of the worst marketing blunders in film history) was one of the biggest surprises of 2014 and is destined to become something of a sci-fi classic in its own right.  He also brought us Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Jumper, and I’m betting the only reason you remember one of these movies is more for behind the scenes tabloid level drama than the film itself.  So, I wasn’t sure which Doug Liman we’d be getting as I went in to see American Made, I kept my expectations moderate, and leaving the theater I was pleasantly surprised having seen a film that I would rank up there amongst the films I just called classics – and while it’s going to take some more time and perspective to really classify American Made, my first impression and instinct is that I like it even more than two of those three great ones.

American Made is the Hollywoodized true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet backed Nicaraguan Contras toward the tail end of the ’70s.  It’s the story of the beginning of the War on Drugs and its connection to the Iran-Contra scandals, but it’s the story told through the point of view of one of its lesser known central figures, which makes for an experience that’s both familiar and fresh at the same time.

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I probably shouldn’t have been so tepid in my expectations for American Made since it is pairing up Cruise and Liman for a second time, and Cruise has always shown he can give one hell of a great performance when paired up with a director who understands him, and Liman has already proven once before that he works really well with Cruise.  I won’t oversell Cruise’s performance here as one of the best of the year, but it is quintessential fun, charming Cruise.  Most of what Cruise gives us as Barry Seal is the manic charm that seems to take far more energy than a man in his 50’s seems capable of giving, but there is a nuanced vulnerability here, as well, that we see in many of Cruise’s best works. While he’s always go-go-go, we can also sense that Seal knows he is capable of making a bad decision despite his chutzpah and talent, and that bad decision which could ruin his life and his family is a nearly visible burden Cruise manages to subtly portray giving Seal a dimension which is all too often absent in your typical Tom Cruise action thriller.

The supporting cast also does a wonderful, if never quite spectacular, job bringing us a group of characters which are familiar enough to ground us but never dip into stereotype.  Domnhall Gleason as Schafer, Seal’s CIA recruiter, is definitely the shifty, never know exactly what he’s up to character we’ve come to expect from a middle-man secret agent type, but he also displays a lack of confidence in his own abilities that is incredibly rare in this same type of character making him a unique, memorable figure.  Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal, Barry’s wife, is also excellent truly embodying a family focused woman who loves her husband and children more than anything, hates what he’s doing, but is blinded by the money coming to the family so much she overlooks her own values and instincts.  She, in fact, is probably the most three dimensional and well acted character in the entire ensemble, and if I were to pick out a possible award winner to come out of this film, it would be her.

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The visuals of the film are excellent.  While I’m sure there is some CGI in the film, a scene in which two planes touch wings is one instance that comes to mind, it’s not at all obvious and it seems like what we are viewing is a combination of excellent cinematography combined with practical stunts and effects.  The cinematography really is excellent with its combination of gorgeous aerial shots and more practical yet still stylistic work when the action is grounded.  It’s nothing I would ever call truly artistic, but it most definitely has a style which meshes perfectly with its screenplay.

That screenplay is the most stand out element of American Made, a film which I obviously feel has quite a few stand out elements.  The tone and structure is one which reminds me a great deal of The Big Short from a few years back in that it educates its audience on a series of events that we are familiar with but may be lacking on details unless we are a scholar on the era and events, that education is not just on the history but also looks forward to how those events effect us today, and it does it all with a light, entertaining touch which makes the lesson oh-so-easy to take in that we don’t even realize we’re learning as much as we are until the film is over.  Combine that with the excellent character work mentioned earlier and snappy, witty dialogue, and you have the makings of a truly memorable bit of writing.

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Final verdict:  American Made is yet another highlight in a year filled with so many of them.  It’s an important film with not an ounce of pretentiousness.  It’s a film with true weight and depth, but with such a light touch there is nearly no effort on the part of the audience to take in its insight.  It’s a film which is equal parts comedy, thriller, biopic, crime film, spy movie, and true history, and it works on every single one of those levels.  There are not many audiences I would not recommend American Made to, though I have a feeling those with a kinder vision of the Reagan era than the movie portrays may be offended by some of what the movie has to say, but I will also say that as fantastic as the film is, I don’t think many, if any, would pick it as their favorite film of the year.  As odd as it sounds, the film may be perhaps too well made because it seems to lack the spark of humanity present in the greatest works of art.  Still, this is one hell of a well made film, and if the premise interests you in the least I’d have to think you will get a lot out of it.  It’s good enough that I think it will even thrill a great many who find nothing to grab them from the marketing campaign alone.

American Assassin (Cuesta; 2017)

1987 called, it wants its movie back.  I suppose I could have also said that about last week’s It, but in the case of American Assassin its even more true.  Whereas It at least had modern sensibilities where its cinematography, special effects, and treatment of the subject matter are concerned American Assassin feels in nearly every way like a 30 year-old movie in which Michael Keaton has somehow aged and they forgot to write in the corny one liners.  This is a movie in which every American but one is a no questions asked good guy and every one who isn’t an American except one is a no questions asked bad guy.  America – yay!  Not American – Boo.

The premise behind American Assassin is that a guy who hates terrorists (Mitch played by Dylan O’Brien) is recruited by the CIA to kill said terrorists, but one guy who used to have the same job the guy who hates terrorists (“Ghost” played by Taylor Kitsch) now has has gone bad for reasons and is helping the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, because all Iranians really want to do is blow stuff up despite treaties they entered into.  The strokes painted here are so broad as to be downright insulting to anyone with enough reason to see the world in anything other than absolutes.  Add in the old trainer who is so much better than anyone else that you wonder why they don’t just send him in to do the job in the first place (Stan Hurley played by Michael Keaton) and an undercover operative whose main skill is being pretty (Annika played by Shiva Negar) and you have nearly every offensive stereotype in the book pretty well covered.  At least the Deputy Director of the CIA is a black woman, I guess (Irene Kennedy played by Sanaa Lathan), but in this movie its the equivalent of someone saying “I have a black friend”.

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Okay, so cliches are rampant and offensive, but how is the plot?  There was not a single beat or motivation in this entire film that was not both telegraphed and, again, cliche.  Even if you’ve never seen a movie before I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t see every single bit coming in this movie long before it actually happens.  Add to that the fact that the writers didn’t even attempt to come up with plausible bits of action for our characters – for instance, the bad guy who is the world’s greatest bad ass secret agent gets caught showing his face on security camera easily and immediately for no good reason (it’s not part of some ploy) but apparently that’s okay because the Deputy Director of the CIA doesn’t even think to check security footage – and you have writing that is both inept and broadcast.

The best thing that can be said about American Assassin is that at least the acting and camerawork aren’t as bad as the script.  The actors aren’t given anything to truly work with, and they never manage to rise above the material – even Keaton who seems to be in “doing it for a paycheck” mode – but, they at least show that they may have some promise if they are ever given a decent script and director.    As for the cinematography, the opening is probably the worst bit as its meant to be the main character filming on his phone, but even I who have made the claim that I have never taken a decent photograph could do a better job.  After that, though, the camerawork becomes serviceable, if never in any way, shape, nor form artistic.

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You would think a film in this style would at least be over the top with American nationalism, but we don’t even get that.  There’s no American flags to be seen, no cries for God and country (though, there is one call to prayer), no speeches about American superiority, nor worship of the military.  It’s a film based entirely on terrorists being bad, foreigners being terrorists or at least in league with them, and these facts give Americans an excuse to beat them up and kill them.  That’s the gist.

Final verdict:  The only reason I don’t call American Assassin the worst movie of the year is because the plot was at least mostly coherent, if still nonsensical in its own way.  The script is horrible, the action basic and dull, the characters offensive stereotypes, and even the special effects look like they come straight out of the ’80s.  The only reason to see American Assassin is as a bet with someone you dislike to see who can hold out the longest, either disgust or sleepiness will almost certainly overtake anyone before the movie’s end.

Atomic Blonde (Leitch; 2017)

The year is 1989, the Soviet Union’s collapse is all but done with revolutions happening throughout their territories and communist regimes toppling left and right.  In Berlin Russian, British, and American spies are all trying to get their hands on “The List”, a comprehensive registry of all known intelligence agents for every country involved in the Cold War, including the real name of “Satchel”, a double agent all sides have an interest in getting their hands on.  Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton an M.I. 6 Agent who has the talents her bosses need when the man who had The List, who also happens to be a former lover of Lorraine’s, is killed in East Germany.

Atomic Blonde is the major motion picture directorial debut  of former stuntman David Leitch (he has directed a Deadpool short and parts of John Wick previously).  The stunts are top notch, of course, given his background, but even more impressive is his camera work.  He and director of cinematography Jonathon Sela give us a film which appropriately mixes up its styles to give us some really impressive visuals including one ten to fifteen minute long fight sequence in an apartment stairwell which seems to have been done in one long cut.  Directors are commonly known as having a type and Leitch seems to be a natural when it comes to the art of action from the standpoint of both the people and the visuals involved.

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Charlize Theron has been impressing me for decades giving us hardly a bad movie and never a bad performance going all the way back to the early 2000’s and her turn in Monster which impressed the world with her talent and her bravery.  In Atomic Blonde she shows off her bravery yet again as she bares everything and does her own very physically demanding stunts in her 40’s.  Theron has long been showing she’s more interested in her reputation as a serious actress than as a beautiful woman, and while her performance here is certainly more about plot and action than it is about character, one of Atomic Blonde’s main weaknesses is a lack of real character development, she once again proves her dedication to the craft of acting.

James McAvoy performs our other primary character David Percival.  McAvoy is another actor who is known for his talent  when he could be coasting by on his good looks.  Here he does his job well giving us person whom we cannot nail down.  In a film which relies on suspicion to move the story, McAvoy gives us someone we want to trust but know what a bad idea that would be.  His performance is one which relies on body language and glances, and subtle variations between the words he is speaking and the actions he performs.  He perfectly treads the thin line between subtlety and obvious to give us the necessary doubt without ever having to figuratively give the audience a wink.

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The story is a straightforward one with not a single subplot to be found, but the main story is intricate and winding enough that you could get lost if you’re not paying attention to details.  There are revelations made which can change the way earlier scenes and characters needed to be viewed, and after the fantastic finale to this film when we think the final piece of the puzzle is put into place, we realize just how much of what we experienced was a game meant to deceive us through tropes and misdirection.  In a way the plot is the most simple of all, find and bring home “The List” is really its entirety, but there’s genius in the way this simplicity can lead us down so many misleading paths.

A definite make or break element of Atomic Blonde is its soundtrack.  As someone who did the majority of his growing up during the 1980’s I was really into the movie’s use of it’s music made up entirely of 80’s dance club tracks.  The film has a constant beat, and much like Baby Driver, the action moves along to that beat and there is more than one scene obviously choreographed to match the music which accompanies it.  I thought it added to the already dynamic action of the film, but if 80’s club music isn’t your thing, I can see where the non-stop barrage of it could become an annoyance as the film moves on.

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Final verdict:  Atomic Blonde won’t give you deep characters to study nor enlighten you with its nuanced world view, but if you can live without intellectualism you are in for a treat as it is a really smart, non-stop action film with a very recognizable style.  It can be absolutely brutal at times, and Atomic Blonde earns its R-rating more than perhaps any other spy film I’ve seen, and that element is what keeps the movie modern when everything else about the film is a throwback to 30 years ago when synthesized music reigned, cigarettes were cool, break dancing was in, and the motto world wide was “it’s all about me.”  I not only highly recommend Atomic Blonde, but I predict that this is a film that will one day reach a classic of the spy genre status.