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.

Keeping Up With the Joneses (Mottola; 2016)

Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher headline the comedy Keeping Up With the Joneses as suburban married couple Jeff and Karen Gaffney.  A new couple moves in next door to the Gaffneys the same day they send their kids off to camp, the couple are not what they seem to be at first, and blah, blah, blah hilarity ensues.  It’s a plot and set up we’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times mainly in television sit coms, but often enough in film, too, in movies like Fright Night, The ‘Burbs, Disturbia,  and so on.  The new titular neighbors, the Joneses, are played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot.  The four actors are the best part of Keeping Up With the Joneses, their raw charm, talent, and comic timing being the only traits that keep this film from being a long and mediocre episode of any given suburban situation comedy on network television between the ’60s and the ’90s.

If the acting talent on display is the movie’s greatest strength, then its script is its greatest weakness.  It is predictable to an extreme, the dialogue is mundane with truly funny and surprising punchlines coming only once every while, and there is no real character development nor themes explored at all.  In fact, if there is any lesson to be taken from the story it’s that we’re all really the same and we’re all great just the way we are, and even if that weren’t  naive it’s a lesson that’s the antithesis of good story since absolutely no tension or growth can be gained from it.

Keeping Up With the Joneses is not a dramatic piece, though, it’s a comedy, so it’s most important job is to make us laugh.  It does this better than it creates tension, but it’s still a very rote, predictable sort of comedy.  It’s a pleasant, familiar sort of humor that at no point ever becomes subversive or shocking, and while there is nothing particularly wrong with that on its own, it does take much more talent to make comedies in this vein work, and the writer and director just don’t have it at that level.

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No one will notice the the jokes are old and recycled if we just put Gal Gadot in some lingerie, will they?

The action sequences are decent for a comedy of this sort.  They are simple and sporadic, which was a good decision as anything overly complex would be terribly out of place and it allows us to focus on the situational comedy rather than on the stunts and special effects. In fact, the action sequences are also the most amusing scenes in the movie as they can rely more on what is going on in the moment than on setups and punchlines.  It’s the characters and the actors that bring the most to the comedy in Keeping Up With the Joneses, not the dialogue, and the action sequences allow the dialogue to take a back seat and it’s those sequences that elevate the film from too familiar cliche to actually watchable.

There really isn’t much to say about Keeping Up With the Joneses past you’ve seen it all before, but it’s at least acted well.  There was never a suburban spy situation comedy that I remember (though, I welcome any refreshing of my memory), but change out spy for  some other atypical middle class couple, and this is one of the better episodes of Bewitched or I Dream of Genie or what not, just longer and told from the perspective of the nosy neighbor.

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Even the sets look like something out of Home Improvement.

Keeping Up With the Joneses would be worth seeing someday for free when it comes to Netflix or cable or your streaming service of choice.  But, until that day there are plenty of other comedies which are family friendly and do the exact same thing and you don’t need to shell out good money for.

Rating:  4.8 out of 10