As everyone immediately perceived, the parallels between former Batman star Michael Keaton and his character in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) were plentiful and purposeful. It was devilishly clever casting. And it was great to see Keaton back on top.
Few film performers have risen from the ashes only to go down in flames again a picture or three later, as Keaton often has. Who's his agent — Sisyphus? Here we are once more, just three features beyond his Oscar nomination, watching him back at the bottom of that hill with the colossal boulder of his career to roll up it all over again.
Birdman (2014), Spotlight (2015), The Founder (2016). And for 2017, Keaton's choice was American Assassin, maybe the most puerile, pointless and cliché-riddled action film of the millennium. And, naturally, the folks behind it think it's the beginning of a franchise. Good luck with that. Remember Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)? The adventure didn't. Expect the same here.
Keaton goes into grizzled-veteran mode to play Stan Hurley, an ex-Navy Seal whose golden-years gig is mentoring hunky CIA recruits. The latest is a Jason Bourne clone by the name of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien). Totally believable backstory: One day Mitch is getting some rays on a beach in Ibiza with his fiancée when, out of nowhere, Uzi-wielding terrorists swoop in and fill her full of lead.
What's a guy to do but go underground, beef up, learn Arabic, martial arts and marksmanship so he can infiltrate the Libyan cell responsible, and then personally avenge his beloved's death by taking out its cartoonishly evil leader?
Before Mitch can finish the job, however, an Uzi-wielding CIA unit swoops in and does it for him. Turns out U.S. intelligence has been monitoring Rapp's movements (your tax dollars at work) and wants to train him for a special black-ops mission that's code-named Orion.
Here's where Hurley comes in. The tough-as-nails father figure with a heart of gold takes the wounded warrior under his wing and prepares him for a career in counterterrorism by growling some of the dumbest dialogue ever concocted by English-speaking screenwriters. For example, "Some bad people plan on doing some bad things, and it's our job to stop 'em," "Don't let emotion cloud your judgment" and — I swear — "Never make it personal."
Then we're off to Europe on a mission to track down a nuke that's fallen into nefarious hands and just generally to kick cartoonishly evil terrorist ass wherever possible. Which turns out to be everywhere you look in the course of this typical B-movie travelogue through Istanbul, Warsaw and, of course, Rome. Nothing says cinematic innovation like a shoot-out in a crowded piazza.
And nothing in American Assassin contains a trace amount of innovation. The plot has more holes in it than Rapp's perforated girlfriend, and the car chases and gunfights could have been edited in from '80s action duds. The appropriation of present-day geopolitical tensions for the purpose of lending this laughfest gravitas is in less-than-poor taste.
More than anything, though, the movie is just stupid. Which is sad, since it was directed by Michael Cuesta. Prior to selling out, he made fine independent films such as Kill the Messenger.
This is also sad because Keaton is a terrible thing to waste. He shouldn't be watching movies this obscenely idiotic, much less making them. Time for him to put his shoulder to the boulder all over again. As his character in Birdman learned, sometimes there isn't any unexpected virtue in ignorance.