The miserable summer for movies is over. “American Assassin” and “Brad’s Status,’ though very different, bring joy and intelligence to the screen.
Hollywood loves red-carpet affairs. Hollywood Boulevard shuts down, actors pose for selfies with screaming fans, and traffic becomes a special version of hell. None of this occurred Tuesday night, when American Assassin opened at the Chinese Theater. The publicity machine had decided to cancel the red carpet, “in an effort to keep the attention on the fundraising efforts for Hurricane Harvey.”
It was a respectful decision, for the storm’s victims and the Hollywood locals who usually complain. It also focused the mind on this silly, lean, and very fun action movie. Life on Hollywood Boulevard was relatively quiet that night, while inside Michael Keaton and young newcomer Dylan O’Brien fought jihadists with a level of conviction that should put Jason Bourne on notice.
Before the show, director Michael Cuesta bemoaned how long it took to get this movie made: almost ten years. CBS Films acquired the rights of the adrenaline-fueled political thriller by the late, great Vince Flynn back in 2008. It was worth the wait. While the action felt ridiculous and unevenly paced at times, I was mostly on the edge of my seat, fully engaged. I was also pleased to see a spy thriller unafraid to name and fight today’s true enemy — radical Islam — in an age of fearful political correctness.
The film is based on the prequel in Flynn’s series of Mitch Rapp novels. Here he is a young man — a Navy sailor, we later learn. The fast first scenes form the most exhilarating opening sequence I’ve seen in a while. Rapp (O’Brien) proposes to his beautiful girlfriend. Of course, he does so in the warm water off a tropical beach. Then he walks to the beach bar to get celebratory drinks. Just then armed savages storm the beach, shooting tourists in the name of Allah. It’s a gruesome scene, but looking away is not an option: this is the actual risk we now take as we visit restaurants and nightclubs, beaches and bars, London and Nice.
Such is modern life, and Rapp decides to channel his rage in order to defend the free Western life. This noble sentiment is never uttered as during the rest of the movie he is, on the surface, out for good old revenge. But Flynn, who sadly died in 2013, and Cuesta clearly choose to tell stories in which good guys defend all that is free and beautiful against the barbarians who prefer the burka over the bikini.
Rapp builds himself into a fighting machine. The CIA notices and connects him to America’s best fighter, Stan Hurley, the leader of a shadowy, formally nonexistent elite unit of spies. Rapp’s scores are “off the charts,” although Hurley is not impressed. Still, the two sort of hit it off, in a brooding-alpha-male sort of way. Together they do what Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt have been doing for years: steal cars, race cars, steal boats, kill bad guys in brutally creative ways, deal with Iranian bastards, work with Israeli allies, find stolen plutonium, save the day.
What makes this film fresh is Michael Keaton as Hurley. Sneering and mumbling and insulting his underlings, he is basically an arrogant prick, but his solid ethics and extreme fighting skills make him likable. I don’t always care for Keaton — Birdman was over-rated, I thought. Here, he is a superb mentor to Rapp and a super killer of jihadists in his own right. The way he withstands torture while laughing at his torturer (a nice dark role for Taylor Kitsch) hints at acting greatness.
The summer was a miserable time for movie lovers, which the box office numbers confirmed. Luckily, we’re entering the early stage of award season. This film won’t play a role in that season, although I wouldn’t mind if Keaton got a nomination. Either way, if you like adrenaline and popcorn, don’t miss American Assassin on a big screen.
Here’s a possible surprise for best actor. I am aware that the unwatchable part II of Zoolander seemed like the end of Ben Stiller’s career, but he shines in Brad’s Status. Compact and smart, this little indy did well at the Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, where I saw it with hundreds of impressed movie lovers. (Every festival claims this, but Toronto truly is a festival for film lovers, so their response can count for something.) It turns out Stiller can act. He has always been funny, even if his films have not. In this surprise turn to the dramatic he proves there is more there.
The script by Mike Wright, who also directed, is witty and sharp and soulful. Stiller plays Brad Sloan, a middle-aged guy with a wife, a teenage son, and a nonprofit job. He is depressingly middleclass, and spends his days wondering why. The problem is that his old college friends are all doing splendid: hot young girlfriends, private planes, recognition, fame. Social media shows their glamour, and the gap between their success and his mediocrity is painfully deep. Brad feels left out as he doesn’t even get invited to weddings he can follow on Facebook.
Our man Brad is a loser. He feels that way and we agree. But he is not a bad father. While he drives his son (a good and earnest young actor named Austin Abrams) to check out colleges, the two clash and bond as the kid is looking at his future while Brad is stuck in the past that feeds his self-pity. A thoughtful dramatic comedy with touches of early Woody Allen is the result.
Stories of letting go can get sentimental in the wrong hands. But Wright has guided Stiller well as he explores familiar issues: the insecurities that can linger into midlife, the temptation to compare yourself to the perfectly curated lives on Instagram, the challenges of fatherhood and the complicated love in a normal family.
TIFF showed terrible movies which got attention simply because of the names behind it. I thought Mother! by Darren Aronosky (with Jennifer Lawrence) and Suburbicon by George Clooney (with Matt Damon) were utterly forgettable, to put it charitably. Brad’s Status received little attention. The new and improved Ben Stiller deserves better.
American Assassin and Brad’s Status, both rated R, open Friday in theaters nationwide.
Ben Stiller in 2010 (Jiyang Chen/Creative Commons)