Monday, October 9, 2017


You’d think with gifted writers like Stephen Schiff, who wrote “True Crime” and “Lolita,” Michael Finch who penned “Hitman: Agent 47” and “The November Man,” and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz who teamed up for “Defiance” and “The Last Samurai,” that “American Assassin,” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) with “Maze Runner” star Dylan O’Brien, would have rivaled the James Bond movies and the Jason Bourne franchise as an international terrorist thriller.  Indeed, a sturdy cast gives their best, particularly Michael Keaton who radiates throughout, while the youthful O’Brien has grown up sufficiently so he appears credible as a vengeful adult.  Nevertheless, mediocre scripting sabotages “American Assassin.”  The chief problem lies with its bland hero.  Cinematic heroes should stand out.  As the gung-ho, ‘go-out-and-kill-all-terrorists-and-come-back-alive,’ O’Brien is given little with which to forge a charismatic character. Basically, Mitch Rapp qualifies as an adequate but nondescript hero.  The only reason we feel sympathetic toward him is the tragedy involving his fiancée’s death; this now fuels his every waking moment.  Conversely, as CIA survivalist specialist Stan Hurley who trains black ops agents, Michael Keaton energizes every scene with his brazen bravado.  You have fun watching Keaton soak up every second whether he is shooting at an enemy or withstanding the villain as the latter tortures him.  Similarly, as the evil villain, Taylor Kitsch is almost as captivating as Keaton.  Furthermore, he is the best kind of villain who manages to stay one step ahead of the heroes and keeps surprising us and them.  Adversaries like Keaton’s trainer and Kitsch’s terrorist make O’Brien’s Mitch Rapp look like crap.  Happily, “12 and Holding” director Michael Cuesta keeps things moving so swiftly that it is possible to overlook the colorless but driven hero.  Little of this ambitious plot, however, is original.  “American Assassin” appropriates characters and predicaments from earlier movies, specifically like “Black Sunday” (1977) “The Amateur” (1981), “The Peacemaker” (1997), and “Munich” (2005) about villains with nuclear warheads.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is vacationing in sunny Ibiza, Spain, with his beautiful, blonde, bikini-clad girlfriend Katrina (newcomer Charlotte Vega) when he surprises her with a marriage proposal.  Suddenly, murderous Islamist jihadists shatter their happiness and shoot everybody in sight.  The terrorists wound Mitch twice, and by the time that he reaches his fiancée, she is dead.  Over a year later, Mitch has learned to defend himself with his bare hands, practiced enough with firearms until he can obliterate bullseyes, and learned enough about his Middle-East adversaries so he can infiltrate their cells.  Little does our hero know CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan of “Love & Basketball”) has had him under surveillance.  Eventually, Mitch tracks down the monster who orchestrated the bloody Ibiza beach massacre, Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed of “Syriana”), to Tripoli, Libya.  Mitch has just gotten to meet Al-Mansur when CIA agents charge into the room and blast the terrorists.  Mitch watches in horror as Mansur dies from a shot in the head. This doesn’t keep Mitch from stabbing Al-Mansur’s corpse from repeatedly until the Americans drag him off the body.  The CIA keeps Mitch on ice for 30 days until Kennedy convinces CIA Director Thomas Stansfield (David Suchet of “Agatha Christie's Poirot”) to allow Mitch to join the Agency.  Initially, former Navy Seal veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton of “The Founder”) abhors the prospect of training a civilian.  Nevertheless, Mitch emerges at the top of his class, despite all of Hurley’s dirty tricks to run him off.  The action comes to boil when the Agency learns about the theft of weapons grade plutonium from an off-line Russian nuclear facility.  Worse, Hurley recognizes the thief as an ex-CIA agent, referred to as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch of “John Carter of Mars”), left behind to die on a mission.  Miraculously, Ghost survived and plans to use the plutonium as payback to construct an atomic bomb.  Ghost double-crosses everybody along the way who helped build the bomb, and CIA don’t discover his plan until it is almost too late to thwart him.

If you’ve read Vince Flynn’s bestseller, you’ll know director Michael Cuesta and his writers have scrapped the novel’s plot.  Indeed, they have preserved certain scenes, primarily the boot camp and the torture scenes.  The plot about Stan’s former student Ghost is a figment entirely of the screenwriters’ imagination.  Ghost doesn’t exist in the novel.  Instead of a saboteur like Ghost in the film, our heroes contend with Middle Eastern regimes clashing with each other in bombed-out Beirut.  While an entirely different character tortured Stan in the novel, the villain suffers the same fate as Ghost does in the movie.  Letting down his guard momentarily, the torturer gives Stan the chance to chew off a piece of his ear.  Comparably, Flynn dispatched Rapp and Hurley to Europe to kill an amoral banker who had been managing millions of dollars for the terrorists as well as Russian espionage agents in Moscow.  Further, Mitch’s girlfriend didn’t die on the beach in Flynn’s novel.  Instead, she died aboard the doomed Pan Am flight 103 that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Mind you, sticking Mitch and his fiancée together on the same beach gives our protagonist greater incentive to embark on a “Death Wish” style revenge spree since he saw her die.  Obviously, staging the beach massacre was easier than generating a CGI model of the Pan Am jetliner exploding.  The Mitch in Flynn’s novel didn’t experience his girlfriend’s death first-hand as his cinematic counterpart.  Most of the last part of the novel occurred in Beirut where terrorists abduct Stan, and Mitch launches a rescue mission.  The grand finale in the film occurs in the Atlantic, and Ghost is playing for far higher stakes than his counterparts in the novel.  Altogether, Schiff, Finch, Zwick, and Herskovitz have done an exemplary job of ramping up more larger-than-life derring-do, and Mitch takes greater initiative in his efforts to carry out his mission.  Although competently-made and fast-paced, the rated-R “American Assassin” is still far too derivative to rank as memorable.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Halle Berry lets nothing stop her in “Pusher” director Luis Prieto’s “Kidnap” (*** OUT OF ****) when two predatory rednecks target her six-year old son for abduction in contemporary Louisiana.  This white-knuckled, adrenaline-laced, highway thriller about a mad mom in hot pursuit who refuses to quit is reminiscent of an earlier Halle Berry movie “The Call” (2013) where she portrayed a veteran 911 operator troubled about the welfare of an abducted teenage girl. “The Call” heroine ultimately teamed up with the victim to wreak vengeance on the murderous dastard who had abducted her.  Similarly, Berry is just as driven to catch up with her son’s kidnappers, no matter what the police advise her.  At one point, a policewoman urges her to wait for the authorities to intervene.  Our protagonist relents momentarily until she notices the glut of child abduction posters on a nearby bulletin board and the years that those children have been missing. Mind you, “Kidnap” is one of those contrived, but entertaining Hollywood thrillers where the police are either off elsewhere when needed or useless when involved.  Ultimately, they show up, but they are too late to make a difference.  Nevertheless, in dramatic terms, their last-minute arrival puts the burden on the waitress mom, facing her own child custody battle with her ex-husband and his girlfriend.  When we see Berry for the first time, she is calm and collected. Before “Kidnap” concludes, she is both disheveled and desperate in her efforts to rescue her son.

In a shrewd but calculated effort to endear Karla Dyson’s son Frankie (newcomer Sage Correa) to audiences, director Luis Prieto has appropriated real-life video of the adorable toddler from Correa’s parents.  The prologue in “Kidnap” shows Frankie as a lovable little fellow.  When the story unfolds, he is six-years old, but still lovable.  Frankie is coloring pictures in the restaurant where Karla (Halle Berry of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) works as a waitress, serving up dishes to diners who aren’t happy.  Sadly, Karla isn’t happy either because she was supposed to have gotten off her shift so she could take Frankie to the city park.  No sooner does she have Frankie at the park than her attorney phones her about her ex-husband’s plans to take her son away from her.  All the racket going on around Karla at the park interferes with her concentration.  She steps away briefly from Frankie to tell her attorney that nobody is going to take her son away from her.  During these short-lived moments, she loses sight of Frankie, and then spots an obese, white woman, Margo (newcomer Chris McGinn), dragging him into her late 1980s’ Green Ford Mustang with a bra over the grille.  Karla scrambles after them, seizes the luggage rack bars atop the car-roof, and is dragged along until the accelerating vehicle jars her hands loose.  Charging off to her red minivan, she drops her cell phone in the street and careens out of the park on the bumper of the Mustang.  As she closes on after them, these fiends hurl everything in the trunk of the Mustang at her.  Happily, Karla swerves out of the path of the debris, but some motorists aren’t so fortunate.  One vehicle tumbles sideways after a spare tire slams into it.  Eventually, the kidnappers hang Frankie’s head out of the passenger’s side door and hold a knife to this throat.  Reluctantly, Karla backs off, but she doesn’t give up her pursuit as easily as the abductors reckoned.

Things complicate quickly when Karla attracts the attention of a motorcycle police officer.  Initially, the cop orders Karla to pull over, but Karla keeps pointing at the Mustang.  Eventually, the cop gets the message, but he finds himself crushed between the recklessly driven Mustang and Karla’s red minivan.  The two cars plow off the highway and onto a grass median where the injured cop crashes his bike.  Karla comes face to face with the kidnappers and tries to bargain with them.  She tosses them her wallet with her credit cards and gives them her pin number in exchange for her son’s life. The tall, lanky, male redneck driver, Terry (Lew Temple of “Lawless”), takes her wallet.  Moments later Karla freaks out when Terry’s mother emerges from the Mustang with the wallet and suggests that Karla take her to the bank to withdraw $10-grand for Frankie.  Naturally, you would never let such a repugnant woman share the same car with you.  Margo slides into the back seat so she can control Karla.  While cruising through an underground, one-lane tunnel, Karla realizes her mistake, and the two women tangle like tigers.  Twisting Karla’s side belt around her neck, Margo strangles her.  Karla ditches Margo, but this isn’t the last that she’ll see of this despicable dame.

Basically, “Kidnap” puts us in the passenger’s seat with Karla as she chases the villains.  Initially, she has little luck catching up with them.  The filmmakers refrain from showing us what little Frankie is enduring until the end when the tension really comes to a boil.  Director Luis Prieto doesn’t pull too many punches because you know our heroine is going to rescue her son.  Nevertheless, our heroine must deal with one infuriating setback after another.  Chiefly, the villains are hopelessly unsavory and have no qualms about endangering innocent bystanders.  Indeed, one pedestrian gets in Terry’s way, and he smashes into her, somersaulting her off the windshield of his stolen car.  Not even the sight of a woman crumpled up on the asphalt in dire need of medical help distracts our brave heroine from letting her adversary escape from her!  Prieto keeps his camera focused tightly on Karla so she is up in our face for the duration of the harrowing chase.  You’ll be pulling your hair out by the roots at the unbearably suspenseful grand finale of “Kidnap” when our heroine finally tracks down Frankie! Clocking in at 95-minutes, “Kidnap” will keep you poised on the edge of your seat.

Monday, August 28, 2017


As the summer doldrums descend upon us with the impending change of the seasons, it is reassuring Hollywood has produced a genuinely entertaining action comedy to tide us over until the major Thanksgiving and Christmas releases.   Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson make a charismatic combo with no love lost for each other in the fast-paced but formulaic thriller “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” (***1/2 out of ****) co-starring Gary Oldman and Salma Hayek.  “Expendables 3” director Patrick Hughes proves not only that he can orchestrate some extraordinary stunts involving vehicular mayhem on a modest $30-million budget, but he also gets inspired performances from his gifted cast.  Indeed, you’ve seen variations of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” many times before in road pictures about mismatched heroes, such as the two “48 HRS” movies, “The Rundown,” “The Rookie,” the “Rush Hour” trilogy, the “Lethal Weapon” series, “The Nice Guys,” and “Midnight Run.”  This adrenalin-laced saga benefits from catchy dialogue courtesy of “Fire with Fire” scenarist Tim O’Connor who gives everybody quotable lines peppered with flavorful profanity as well as a plot sizzling with surprises galore.  Of course, you know Ryan Reynolds is going to deliver Samuel L. Jackson as a witness to testify against villainous Gary Oldman before the deadline when the latter can be cleared off all charges against his murderous Eastern European regime.  The destination isn’t as much a revelation as the rollercoaster ride that everybody takes to arrive there in the nick of time.  All too often movies like “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” lose steam somewhere in the middle, but Australian director Patrick Hughes maintains the momentum throughout its 118 minutes.  The gauntlet that our bickering heroic pair must negotiate keeps challenging them right up until to the last second. Happily, the gals in this slam-bang, grudge match aren’t destitute damsels-in-distress, but babes that can shoot straight, smash testicles with their feet, and rival the guys with their profanity.  Clearly, sensitive souls searching for philosophical insights about life’s mysteries should shun this implausible but entertaining nonsense.

Debonair Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds of “Deadpool”) is at the top of his game as an elite triple-A bodyguard who will shield any scoundrel who can afford his services.  Bryce knows all the tricks of the trade.  As “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” unfolds, our clean-shaven, well-dressed, suit and tie executive has escorted a notorious Japanese arms dealer, Kurosawa (Tsuwayuki Saotome of “London Has Fallen”), to the airport to bid him farewell when a random shot out of the blue obliterates the arms dealer as the latter is peering out the window of his jet at Bryce.  Our protagonist is stunned beyond expression and watches as his bodyguard service folds.  Initially, Bryce blames his girlfriend, Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung of “Gods of Egypt”), for her lack of discretion. Michael believes Amelia leaked word about the Japanese arms dealer’s presence.  They separate over this breach.  Meantime, genocidal Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman of “True Romance”), is on trial at The Hague in the Netherlands for international human rights violations.  As the trial winds down to its inevitable conclusion, the prosecution cannot seem to keep its’ witnesses alive long enough for them to testify.  The last man scheduled to take the stand against Dukhovich is the world’s deadliest hitman, Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”), who refused an offer from him.  Simply said, Kincaid doesn’t murder innocent women and children. He has irrefutable evidence which will seal Dukhovich’s fate.  Basically, Kincaid has cut a deal with the prosecutor to talk if she will release his wife, Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek of “Everly”), from an Amsterdam prison.  As Kincaid later tells Sonia, he doesn’t care if they send him to prison because there isn’t a prison secure enough to hold him.

Interpol sets out to haul Kincaid from Manchester, England, under a heavily armed guard to The Hague.  An informer within the ranks, however, tips off Dukhovich’s top assassin, Ivan (Yuri Kolokolnikov of “Game of Thrones”), about the route.  Ivan’s trigger-happy henchmen ambush the Interpol van and wipe out everybody but Amelia and Kincaid. Kincaid catches a slug in the leg before Amelia and he elude the killers.  She escorts Kincaid to a safehouse where he digs the bullet out of his calf as if he were Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo and bandages himself.  Afterward, Kincaid refuses flatly to cooperate with Interpol.  Reluctantly, Amelia swallows her pride and resorts to Michael for help.  At first, he wants nothing to do with this suicidal kiss of death exercise.  Nevertheless, he caves in to his desperate ex-girlfriend’s pleas.  No sooner have Michael and Kincaid met than they are shoving pistols in each other’s faces. “My job is to keep you out of harm’s way,” Michael reminds Kincaid. “I am harm’s way,” Jackson retorts defiantly.  Since his near miss with death during the ambush, Kincaid has gone to packing a pistol.  As it turns out, Michael and Kincaid discover they are old adversaries, and they spend the rest of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” swapping insults when they aren’t whittling down the army of gunmen that outnumbers them. 

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” indulges in everything action movie fans crave.  Director Patrick Hughes knows better than to let the expository dialogue scenes interfere with the plethora of shooting and killing.  The body count escalates into double-digits, and Kincaid himself knocks off almost thirty gunmen.  Although our heroes cannot perish, life is hardly a picnic as they dodge one barrage after another. Half of the time, Kincaid and Michael are working against each other. For example, Kincaid stomps the brakes during a careening car chase and a surprised Michael performs a header through the windshield but regains his footing without missing a stride.  Ironically, the relationship between them improves as the odds against their survival worsen.  Meanwhile, Gary Oldman arouses our wrath as an appropriately despicable villain who kills without a qualm.  Villains must be hard-boiled in thrillers.  Despite its familiarity, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” delivers everything that makes an action movie unforgettable!