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.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is called such because it is the first Spider-Man film since Marvel originally sold the rights to the character and those surrounding him to Sony way way back at the turn of the millenium.  Since then Sam Raimi has made three movies featuring the character being played by Toby Maguire, one of them actually really good, and Andrew Garfield took on the role twice, and was meant to play him a third time, but Sony realized they didn’t really know what they were doing.  So, while Sony did not give the rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel, they did turn to Marvel for help, and the result is an agreement in which Sony retains the rights to produce and distribute the Spider-Man solo films, but Marvel gets to include him in their cinematic universe, Sony gets to include the Marvel Universe in their films,  and Marvel oversees the writing on the solo films so that the character and the world he is in are done justice.  Spider-Man has left his bubble created by Sony and has come home to the world he began in.

We got to see a bit more than a glimpse of Marvel’s take on Spider-Man last year in Captain America: Civil War. and regardless of what you thought of the film as a whole, though it was well received, you were looked at really funny if you didn’t agree that Tom Holland was a fantastic choice as the actor to portray the wall-crawler, and that the writing of the character was spot on.  Now we get to see how Tom Holland does when he has to take the spotlight for more than twenty minutes, and when given the chance to anchor an entire story surrounding him, Tom Holland shines even more brightly.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is more than just a superhero movie, it is also a coming-of-age character piece which uses the superheroic conflict as the means through which our teenage protagonist grows into, if not manhood, then at least his next stage in life.  Tom Holland gives us a spot on Peter Parker and Spider-Man, showing his vulnerability, his awkwardness, horrible luck, and his friendly but nerdy nature as Peter Parker, then changing into the wise-cracking, blustering superhero when the time comes as a means to hide what is really a lack of confidence.  This is a facet of the character that has been missed in all the earlier cinematic incarnations, the fact that his jokes are really just a way of covering up his inferiority complex, and it is fantastic to finally see it realized on the big screen.  Another part of the character that we apparently needed Marvel on board to see is his remarkable intelligence, and that we get here, too.  Only his youth and inexperience keep Peter Parker from being one of the preeminent brains in the universe of Marvel comics, and we see that in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well, both his genius and the inexperience that holds him back.

A character piece is best when there is more than one strong character, however, and definitely get quite a few here.  I could write quite a bit about the crew of high school friends that surround Peter in his everyday life or about Marisa Tomei’s unique but great take on the now not-so-decrepit Aunt May because they are all very well written and acted, but instead I’ll tell you that Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture is not only a very well written and well rounded foil, I believe that he is the best villain yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though, not quite the Netflix shows).  While he may not have near the charm of Tom Holland’s Loki, he makes up for that in being a real person. This is the first Marvel villain with real motivations, real ambitions, and isn’t just a stereotyped cartoon that is around solely for the good guys to overcome.  Vulture in the comics is not only a bad villain, he is one of the worst villains ever put to page in 4 colors, however he is a good foil for the very early Spider-Man still learning his powers.  Spider-Man: Homecoming realizes this, modernizes the character, makes him far more threatening than just an old man in a suit that can fly, but not so threatening that The Avengers would take much notice of him. While this would probably be enough to make a good foe for Spider-Man’s first solo outing, they go the extra mile and make him a character with motives we understand and can even see ourselves going along with under the right circumstances as well as a character who challenges the teenage Spider-Man’s intelligence and ethics, allowing Peter Parker to grow as a person as well as as a superhero.

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But, if you go to a comic book movie to see action and characters are just a nice bonus, you still will not be disappointed.  The film spreads out its action set pieces at excellent intervals and all of them show off the agility, strength, intelligence, and big mouth of our favorite costumed arachnid.  Special effects have advanced a bit since Andrew Garfield’s turn in the red and blue suit, and an awful lot since Tobey Maguire’s day, and we can get a real sense of the speed Spider-Man has, as well as the limitations in scenes such as a hilarious bit in which Spider-Man finds himself in the countryside rather than the city and realizes he can’t swing on his webs to the rescue, like never before.  The action bits take on true creativity as Spider-Man and Vulture learn from one another over time and learn to counteract the regular strategies the other uses, making for action that relies on the intelligence of the pro and antagonist as much or more than on their superpowers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is not content to be just a good action movie and character piece, though, it also is finally a well realized coming of age story.  It’s not a movie about beating the bad guy as much as it’s a movie about Peter Parker growing into the man he needs to be.  This is going to be a journey made over multiple films, so I don’t think this movie is meant to show us the end of his personal growth, but the true catharsis at film’s end is not that Spider-Man beats the bad guy, but how, and what he learns from this in his life as Peter Parker.

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The film does have some flaws.  The fact that it is in the Marvel Universe and the writing was overseen by Kevin Feige added a ton to the film, but the way Iron Man and Happy Hogan were included in the action was awkward.  Happy is given a role of Peter’s watchdog, which seems odd enough on its own, but then he performs these duties by acting as if he doesn’t want them.  Tony Stark himself, also, only seems to be in the movie as less a mentor and more a harsh critic until the end when he suddenly turns 180 degrees without our being shown the change of heart.  This all adds up to a really awkward and unnecessary tie in to the rest of the MCU which probably would have been best left out and merely hinted at.  They also do something odd with an incredibly iconic Spider-Man character, nearly as iconic as Spider-Man himself, that makes for a character who may as well be someone else entirely, just with the same name, and while we will have to wait and see how that plays out in future films, it just seems like a really unusual decision in a film that otherwise manages to nail nearly every major part of the Spider-Man mythos.

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Final verdict:  Spider-Man: Homecoming finally brings us the Spider-Man from the comics to the big screen, and does so in a way that isn’t merely action packed, but also thoughtful and with characters as well rounded and authentic as you could hope for in a comic book movie.   I left the theater knowing that I had just seen the best portrayal of Spider-Man himself ever put on screen, but not sure if the movie itself was better than Spider-Man 2, my favorite of the previous Spider-Man films.  I decided that not only was it better, but that it was a great movie for all the same reasons, just that they took everything Spider-Man 2 did to another level.  Yes, I did say Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great movie, and therefore I wholeheartedly recommend it to all but the most ardent detractors of the modern superhero movie.