Getting His Due

I discovered Vince Flynn’s thrillers a couple of books into the series starring his hero, Mitch Rapp. Rapp was Jack Ryan on steroids, a better version of Jason Bourne than in the Robert Ludlum books. After I finished that book, I went back and read all the previous books he’d written, then continued to read Flynn’s new novels. As an author, Flynn’s personal story resonated with me. He hadn’t set out to be an writer; his degree was in economics, and he’d been hired by Kraft Foods after graduation as a sales and account specialist. Two years later he gave up his job for a chance at a commission as a Marine aviator, only to be scrubbed because of concussions he’d had as a child that cause seizures. Back he went to sales for another company.

A dyslexic, Flynn struggled with reading when young. He fought the condition by forcing himself to reading novels, including both Clancy and Ludlum. After he washed out of the Marines, Flynn had the idea for his own novel that he worked on while keeping his regular job. After a couple of years, he decided to go all in on writing. He left both his job and his native Minnesota to move to Colorado where he wrote full-time while supporting himself on part-time jobs like bartending. Five years passed. He finished the novel, but he received over 60 rejections of the manuscript from agents and publishers. Frustrated with the traditional publishing route, he decided to self-publish the book, years before Amazon and the internet made self-publishing common. In this, he followed a similar path to John Grisham’s start as a writer, though he didn’t have Grisham’s law practice for support. The book “Term Limits” became a bestseller in the Twin Cities and helped him land an agent and a contract with Pocket Books. Their edition of “Term Limits” became a New York Times bestseller. In his follow-up, “Transfer of Power,” Flynn introduced his signature character: CIA operative and covert warrior Mitch Rapp. All of Flynn’s books hit the NYT Bestseller list, and the 9th book, 2007’s “Protect and Defend,” became the first of his regular appearances at the top of the chart.

By 2007 the Jack Ryan movie franchise had already been through one attempted reboot with Ben Affleck, while that year saw the third Bourne movie released with a domestic gross of over $200 million. CBS Films optioned the Mitch Rapp series, but like the first book it took years for Mitch Rapp to appear on the big screen. It’s strange, since the first Rapp novel, “Transfer of Power,” dealt with the White House being taken over by terrorists. It would have made a better movie than either White House Down or Olympus Has Fallen.

Originally a later book was planned as the source for the first movie, but in 2010 Flynn published “American Assassin,” a prequel that told Rapp’s origin story. It gave producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura the chance to start at the beginning. The highly-respected team of Ed Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz were brought on to do the script, with Zwick directing, but that attempt didn’t get off the ground. Another director was recruited and the script was revised by Michael Finch, a more pedestrian screenwriter (Predators, Hitman: Agent 47). Again, the production didn’t gel. Finally, with the movie option about to expire, a fourth writer took a crack at the script: Stephen Schiff, a producer and writer for the outstanding FX series “The Americans.” The directing assignment was given to  Michael Cuesta, who’d begun his career with the well-received 2001 movie L.I.E. and subsequently produced and directed episodes of “Six Feet Under,” “Dexter,” “Elementary,” and “Homeland,” among other projects.

Early on Chris Hemsworth was attached to play Rapp, but that fell through. Instead, when the production finally came together, Dylan O’Brien was cast. O’Brien’s in his early twenties, which matched Rapp’s age in the book and would allow him to play the role convincingly if it became a franchise. O’Brien came to prominence in a supporting role on the MTV series “Teen Wolf,” then landed the main role in the Maze Runner trilogy. He suffered a serious injury that landed him in the hospital during the filming of the final installment, which pushed back that movie’s release date to next year. He came to the American Assassin production after recuperating. In fact, the beard he wears early in the movie was grown while he was recovering.

The movie opens with a moment of happiness for Rapp as he proposes to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) in the surf at a Spanish resort. The happiness is blown away by a brutal terrorist attack on the vacationers that leaves Mitch wounded and Katrina dead. A year and a half later, Mitch, obsessed with killing those behind the attack, has honed his skills with weapons and hand-to-hand combat. His attempts to gain access to a terrorist cell as a supposed recruit brings him to the attention of the CIA, in particular deputy operations chief Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). She convinces CIA Director Stansfield (David Suchet) to let her recruit Rapp for a black-ops unit run by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Soon Rapp’s drawn into the field and paired with a female Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar) in an operation to take down an arms dealer. But the mission changes when they learn the dealer’s client is a former operative of Hurley’s, Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who’s gone over to the dark side.

Vince Flynn’s devotees have been hoping for a movie for years – I know I have – so the question is, does American Assassin satisfy that hope? The answer is, sort of. The script is a bit of a mishmash after all the different versions its gone through. Kitsch handles the physical action but isn’t compelling as a villain. It’s a role where you need the menace of Jarvier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall, and that’s far beyond Kitsch’s ability. On the plus side, the script does capture some of the feel of the Rapp books. The set pieces are thrilling and sharply filmed, and the movie makes good use of shooting on-location in Europe.

But the best part is the acting of O’Brien, Keaton, and Lathan. O’Brien does well as Rapp, who on the surface is a blunt instrument but who also has depth, and Keaton is dead-on as the ice-Cold Warrior Hurley. After pretty much disappearing from movies for years, Keaton has come back with a vengeance with Birdman, Spotlight, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now American Assassin. In the books, Kennedy is pure Ivy League spy, but Sanaa Lathan makes you forget that and completely accept her in the role. Shiva Negar is compelling in the role of Annika, and I was delighted to see David Suchet in the role of Stansfield. It’s a small role, but Suchet always makes his roles memorable.

Personally, I hope they continue the series. Even with Bond, it took three times for the series to strike gold with Goldfinger. The film did a bit better than expected at the box office for its opening weekend, making about $16 million including early showings on Thursday. That was enough for a solid second-place at the box office, behind the juggernaut of Stephen King’s It, and in line with the opening for John Wyck.

Sadly, Vince Flynn can’t share in the pleasure of seeing his creation adapted for the movies. He passed away from prostate cancer in 2013 at the age of 48. But the character he created is living on, both on the page with new novels written by thriller author Kyle Mills, as well as with American Assassin. After the struggle to get his voice heard, it’s fitting that Flynn’s stories go on.

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The Third Time Is The Charm

Rebooting a series with a reworked cast can cause problems, especially when it’s the third time. Most movie lovers try to forget when George Clooney pulled on the black cowl of Batman (and the infamous nipple breastplate) after Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer hung up their capes. Batman and Robin was not a high point in the history of cinema, or in Clooney’s career, either. Thankfully he did Out of Sight the next year and never looked back. With the Spider-man franchise, Tobey Maguire was good in the first two films and then completely self-immolated in the third, while Andrew Garfield was okay in the first but couldn’t save the mess of a sequel. Sony Pictures had changed the name to the Amazing Spider-man, but neither of those films lived up to that promise. I might have skipped Spider-man: Homecoming if not for the introduction of the reboot in Captain America: Civil War. Tom Holland was delightful in the role, and having Marisa Tomei as a non-geriatric Aunt May was a bold and welcome change. (Imagine Robert Downey Jr. hitting on Rosemary Harris. Have you clawed your eyes out yet?)

Marvel sold the rights to the character to Sony, as they had the X-Men to Fox. In the short term, it was a financial help to the company as it transitioned from print comic books into the media powerhouse it’s become. But it meant they couldn’t control a product that they knew intimately. Now Sony (under its Columbia brand) has wisely returned the webslinger to Marvel in a co-production deal, and it has paid off handsomely with a $100 Million plus opening weekend, an 8.1 out of 10 rating on IMDb (the best of any film in the series), and a rejuvenated character that outshines all five previous movies.

Homecoming is literally true. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield spent their time swinging around Manhattan, since it has all those lovely skyscrapers. Spider-man: Homecoming returns the character to Queens, Peter Parker’s home in the comics. He’s back to being your friendly, neighborhood Spider-man. The “bit by a radio-active (or genetically modified) spider” backstory is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. The production team also put him in a realistic high school, populated with characters that look like they belong there. With Tom Holland you have an actor who is only a couple of years separated from those High School days himself, much closer than either Maguire or Garfield were when they did the role. Finally, the film takes a classic Spider-man villain – The Vulture – and generates a compelling backstory for him.

The story begins in the rubble left by the Avengers fight against the alien invasion of Manhattan. A salvage company run by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) wins a contract to collect the alien technology that litters the scene following the battle. However, they’re soon shut down by the government after they decide to do the collection themselves in partnership with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Toomes decides to keep the tech they’ve already recovered and, with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus), turn it into black-market weapons. One thing created is a set of self-propelled set of wings that allows Toomes to fly, turning him into the Vulture.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the events of Captain America: Civil War. We see Peter Parker (Holland) recruited by Stark and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and transported to Germany for the airport battle, but our viewpoint is Peter’s video diary filmed on his phone. Following the battle, Peter returns home ready to do great things, but he’s ignored by Stark and Happy. He does his own small-scale heroics – and posts videos on the internet – but mostly he’s stuck in High School purgatory. He’s obsessed with the beautiful senior Liz (Lauren Harrier); he’s tormented by Flash (Tony Revolori), a nerd like Peter but one whose father’s bank account is large enough to make him cool; and he hangs with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) while the sardonic Michelle (Zendaya) watches unimpressed. Things change when Peter runs across a robbery team (wearing Avengers masks) using the alien tech provided by Toomes. When Happy ignores Peter’s request for help, Peter decides to track down who’s providing the tech on his own.

Normally the more writers on a project, the worse it turns out, since they have a tendency to muddle the focus. Three writing teams contributed to the screenplay, though the primary team that also has story credit is Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. Their milieu has been comedy, with the Horrible Bosses movies being their biggest hits, and they bring a cockeyed viewpoint to the story that serves it well. Daley is mostly been known as an actor, starting with “Freaks and Geeks” and spending almost a decade on “Bones” as psychiatrist Lance Sweets, but with more scripts like this that will change. One delightful bit is having the school use corny PSAs recorded by Captain America in the gym class and detention. “I know that technically he’s classified as a terrorist now,” the bored gym teacher says, “but the administration says show these, so I’ll show them.” Beyond the humor, though, the screenwriters know you need a powerful villain, and the action needs to keep flowing. They deliver on both.

Director Jon Watts also has a resumé heavy on comedy, including directing the Onion News Network. But then as his first feature film he made Cop Car, a mean little thriller starring Kevin Bacon. The set pieces on the Staten Island Ferry and at the Washington Monument are thrilling, but they’re also woven into the whole fabric of the film.

It’s a particular delight to watch Keaton. Ever since Night Shift, he’s been inventive and interesting on screen, even in lesser roles. After a long season out of the spotlight, he’s now come roaring back. With Vulture, he matches the effectiveness of Jack Nicholson’s Joker without the over-the-top schtick.

Homecoming’s almost two-and-a-quarter-hour running time flies by. This is a movie you could easily watch several times and be entertained at every viewing. The first time, though, make sure you stay until for the final tag after the credits. It is arguably the funniest one ever for a Marvel movie.

A Brilliant Light

True-life scandals have been fodder for motion pictures for years. There was Karen Silkwood, the plutonium plant employee who raised concerns about health and safety at her plant before she died in a suspicious accident. She was portrayed by Meryl Streep in Silkwood, while her story likely inspired parts of The China Syndrome. More recently Julia Roberts won the Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for her performance as Erin Brockovich, the paralegal who wins a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against PG&E for poisoning a town’s water supply. The Insider, Quiz Show, Good Night and Good Luck, all were based on actual events. But the granddaddy of them all is All the President’s Men. It managed to turn the Woodward and Bernstein investigation of the Watergate conspiracy into one of the best political thrillers ever, and is at least partially to blame for every supposed scandal since having –gate added onto it, as if the suffix could give gravitas to the situation all by itself. Currently in the theaters is Spotlight, the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation that blew open the Catholic Church pedophile scandal. It’s not too much to say that Spotlight is this generation’s All the President’s Men, but in some ways it’s even better.

The title comes from the name of the paper’s investigational team. Three reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – work under editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Spotlight is set up to take on stories that might take months to develop and require deep digging into records as well as wearing out plenty of shoe leather. The team is under the overall supervision senior editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), the son of the Washington Post editor who oversaw Woodward and Bernstein. In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) is brought in from Miami as editor-in-chief, amid concerns of staff cuts. When Robby meets with Baron, rather than talking of cutbacks Marty brings up a case that’s been mentioned in a column about a lawyer pursuing a suit against a priest who’d abused children in six parishes over a couple of decades. The lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), claims to have proof that Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) knew about the abuse but did nothing. However, the documents in the case have been sealed. Baron thinks this is a story that would be perfect for the Spotlight team.

Movies already have the challenge of making us suspend our disbelief so that what we see on the screen seems real. With Spotlight, there was also the challenge to suspend prior knowledge of the story and simply watch it play out. The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has become a huge scandal that has shaken the church from the local parish all the way up to the Vatican. The excellent script by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (who also directed) makes us want to watch it play out. It recreates the world of Boston prior to the scandal where the status quo could be counted on to hide many sins. Singer wrote for “The West Wing” and also did the script for The Fifth Estate in 2013, while McCarthy wrote and directed The Station Agent (with Peter Dinklage) and Win Win (with Paul Giamatti), as well as providing the story for Up. Given the quality of Spotlight, it’s to be earnestly hoped that they work together again soon.

The cast is outstanding and they well deserve their nomination for a SAG award as the best ensemble. They may not nail the Boston patois – the movie makes its own joke about it when Stanley Tucci learns that Ruffalo is from South Boston and comments, “You don’t sound like it” – but they do nail the characters. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and James show their character’s individuality, even as they work together. Schrieber gives a restrained performance as Baron that highlights his intelligence and observant nature. But every single actor in the film turns in performances of diamond clarity and sharpness, from the main cast through Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle and Jamey Sheridan in key supporting roles, through to the smaller roles – in particular those who portray the victims. They honor those they embody.

Howard Shore has composed a subtle but effective score for the film that touches your emotions without hammering you over the head. Stephen H. Carter’s production design is first-class; it makes you feel like you’re walking around Boston neighborhoods, even though the movie was partially filmed in Toronto.

A powerful takeaway from this film is the absolute necessity of local papers and journalists. No TV reporter could have uncovered this story, nor could a blogger working on his own. If it weren’t for the Globe’s investment in investigational journalism, this story might never have broken and the institutionalized abuse would have continued. McCarthy and Singer make that clear, particularly in one scene between Ruffalo and Tucci near the end. It’s a gut-punch of a scene – when you see the movie you’ll know which one I’m talking about – that makes an eloquent plea for this type of reporting. In the credits, a website address is given where you can go to pledge support to investigative journalism, but something everyone could do is subscribe to their local paper, even if it’s the electronic version.

When the lights go dim in the newsrooms of this land, abuses of all kinds can play freely in the darkness.

Up, Up, and Away!

Mexico has given three wonderful presents to the movie world: three incredibly inventive directors. Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) is a master of the modern fantasy and Alfonso Cuaron is a genius with visuals as seen in movies such as Gravity and Children of Men. The third member of the trinity, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is exceptional in observing the human condition and putting it on the screen in movies like 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful. He also gets Oscar-nominated performances from his actors in all of those movies. In Inarritu’s new movie Birdman, he borrows a bit from his two compatriots to make one of the most original and stunning movies in recent memory.  

The movie mostly takes place in and around the St. James Theater on Broadway in New York City, though in the first scene we realize it also lives in the realm of magical realism. This literary genre, which is very popular in Latin America, presents fantastic scenes or images but in a meticulously realistic style (as defined by Merriam-Webster).

Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is an actor known for being the superhero Birdman in three hugely-successful movies in the early 1990s, but then he walked away from the franchise. Now he’s strapped for cash and is trying to re-energize his career by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Just before the first preview, Riggan realizes the other male actor in the four-role play is not going to work. The actor is promptly injured by a falling light, and Riggan is sure he mentally made it happen.

While Riggan and his lawyer/partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis) suggest replacements – all of whom are busy doing superhero movies – the female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) interrupts with news that Mike (Edward Norton), one of the best Broadway actors, is available and wants to do the play. While Mike gives the play (and the box office) a shot of adrenalin, he can be a monster to work with. The only place where he’s real and honest is when he’s on stage.

In the midst of the stress of the show, Riggan hears Birdman in his head, commenting on his life in a Christian Bale growl. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), recently out of rehab, is working as his assistant, though she brings along a load of parental resentment. Riggan is also in a relationship with the other actress in the play, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who might be pregnant by him. On top of this, they can’t seem to get through a preview performance without a catastrophe happening on stage.

While there have been movies about the verities vicissitudes of staging a play, Inarritu supercharges the film by having it appear to take place in one long seamless take, even as it covers a couple of weeks of time. He and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki (who worked with Cuaron on Gravity) have the camera glide through the theater and its maze-like backstage corridors as if it’s a character observing what’s happening. It meant that the actors had to do scenes that could stretch in length to the ten-minute range – eternity for a film actor – while they had to hit their multiple marks throughout in a specific number of steps while they spouted paragraphs of dialogue perfectly. In addition, you have the magical elements of the story that blend smoothly with the reality on the screen. It’s like doing a perfect performance of “Swan Lake” on a tightrope.

Forget about any comparisons between Riggan in the movie and Michael Keaton’s experience with Tim Burton’s version of Batman twenty-five years ago. Keaton is fearless as an actor and has lost none of the volcanic energy that made him a star in Night Shift, his first film role back in 1982. The performance is transcendent and mesmerizing.

That performance is also matched and ably supported by Norton, Stone, and Watts. Norton and Stone have both done superhero movies themselves (The Incredible Hulk and the last two Spiderman movies respectively), and Watts came close with the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. It’s interesting too when the straightest role is done by Galifianakis. A pleasant discovery is Andrea Riseborough, who’s mostly worked in English movies like Happy-Go-Lucky and Made in Dagenham. She more than holds her own with all the others and is fascinating to watch. Rounding out the cast is Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) as Riggan’s former wife and Sam’s mother, and Lindsay Duncan as the reviewer for the Times.

The film’s score is almost all percussion, provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez. The beat digs into your consciousness as you watch the film, giving the film its own heartbeat. In keeping with magic realism, a couple of times the camera pans past a drummer playing the music we hear in the scene.

Birdman is in limited release, so it may be hard to find a theater where it’s playing. It is well worth searching out, to revel in its originality as well as its commentary on the state of films today. Hopefully it will be nominated for a slew of awards in January and that will result in its wide release to multiplexes across the country. It deserves both the awards and the wide release.