Mitch Rapp: American Assassin

Before his death in 2013 at the age of 47 from cancer, Vince Flynn wrote 14 bestselling books, 13 of which starred ultra-badass counterterrorism agent Mitch Rapp. Flynn’s first book was published in 1997, and his first Mitch Rapp book was published in 1999. It took Hollywood a while to make a movie based on Flynn’s work, and the first one, American Assassin, was released last week.

I love the Mitch Rapp books. Rapp is a no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He never met a terrorist whose kneecap he didn’t want to put a bullet in. He doesn’t give a damn about the constantly-debating politicians in Washington. He will do whatever he has to in order to stop terrorists from killing innocent people.

Image: Lionsgate

This attitude frequently puts him in conflict with the politicians, which leads to much of the drama in the books, aside from Mitch kicking terrorist ass, which he does prodigiously. But he’s not just a meathead who is good at killing bad guys. He has a tragic backstory and a fascinating personality, and I cared about him a lot as I read the books.

One of my favorite parts of the books was Rapp’s developing relationship with his girlfriend and later wife Anna Reilly, a reporter he rescues from a terrorist attack and subsequently falls in love with. Flynn lets their relationship develop over several books, and in Flynn’s seventh novel Consent to Kill, which is one of my all-time favorite books and one of the best espionage thrillers ever written, (book spoiler alert) I was genuinely heartbroken when Anna was killed by a bomb that was meant for her husband. Killing his wife turns out to be the worst mistake the bad guys could have possibly made, as it leads Mitch to unleash an unstoppable tidal wave of unholy vengeance upon them.

By the way, that terrorist attack Mitch rescues Anna from? That was at the White House. Vince Flynn told the story of the White House being invaded by terrorists in 1999, well before Hollywood got around to making not one but two White House invasion movies in 2013. So yeah, Mitch Rapp is a badass, as was his creator.

The new film, American Assassin, is based on Flynn’s novel of the same name. Although it was published in 2010, making it one of his later books, it is the first chronologically and serves as the origin story for Mitch Rapp. So it makes sense that it would be the first to be adapted for film. I can’t say exactly how well the movie follows the story of the book, since I read it several years ago, but it does a commendable job of capturing the feel of Flynn’s books.

Mitch is played in the film by Dylan O’Brien, a 26-year-old actor known mostly for the YA sci-fi series The Maze Runner, as well as the TV series Teen Wolf. I was a bit skeptical of O’Brien’s casting, since he seemed like a bit of a heartthrob for teenage girls, but he does good work in the role. He doesn’t quite have the charisma of Daniel Craig or Matt Damon, but then, Mitch Rapp was never much in the charisma department. He’s a man of action, not words. Mitch’s teacher and mentor Stan Hurley is played by the great Michael Keaton, who has a lot of fun chewing scenery and being a crusty, cantankerous badass.


Image: Lionsgate

In the movie’s opening scene, Mitch is on vacation with his girlfriend in Spain. He proposes to her and she accepts. It seems like an idyllic scene, until gunfire breaks out and Mitch’s girlfriend and many other people are killed by terrorists, and Mitch himself is shot multiple times. It’s a tense, effective scene, and effectively establishes the mood of the film.

Eighteen months later, Mitch lives a solitary life and is consumed with vengeance. He frequents an internet message board where he makes contact with the Jihadist cell responsible for the attack that killed his girlfriend, and is able to infiltrate them. The CIA has gotten wind of this and takes out the cell before Mitch can exact his vengeance.

He is then drafted into a black ops unit codenamed Orion and sent to Stan Hurley for training. The rest of the film’s plot involves nuclear weapons in the hands of people you really don’t want to have nuclear weapons, and a rogue operative with the (rather unoriginal) codename Ghost, played by Taylor Kitsch. I’ll be honest, the plot didn’t blow me away. It followed some predictable twists and turns, most of which didn’t offer any big surprises. But it was serviceable. I don’t know how closely the movie’s plot followed that of the book, since I read it several years ago. But the movie’s story gets the job done in a solid if unspectacular fashion.

There’s quite a bit of action in the film, all of which is well-executed, although the movie doesn’t have a standout action sequence that really stuck with me. Still, the film’s action is solid, and it is always a thrill to see one of your literary heroes given life on the big screen, even if the adaptation is flawed. The movie is R-rated and doesn’t pull any punches with regards to the violence or profanity. This is as it should be, since Mitch Rapp has always been an R-rated guy.


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There’s a torture scene late in the film which is brutal, but also kind of hilarious because Michael Keaton gets to go for it and just go full-on crazy. It’s one of the best scenes in the film because of Keaton’s performance, and reminded me quite a bit of the infamous torture scene in Casino Royale. It’s brutal, but hard to look away from, and even has moments of dark, brilliant humor.

I saw the movie with my dad, since he was the one who got me hooked on the books in the first place and we are both big Mitch Rapp fans. While it’s not the best spy thriller ever made, we both enjoyed it, and a good manly time was had by all. The plot is ho-hum but the action and the performances are solid, and I think it will satisfy fans of Flynn’s excellent books.

Coming up next, we’ve got even more spies and assassins, but this time with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. It’s the return of everyone’s favorite gentlemen badasses in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

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Le Cinema de WTF: Assassin’s Creed

To say that movies based on video games have a mixed track record would be putting it mildly. To put it less mildly, most of them suck. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit to having a weakness for the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider movies. They are good popcorn movies. They are mindless fun. I enjoy them. But are they, strictly speaking, good movies? No. No, they are not.

Assassin’s Creed was the movie that was going to change all that. The movie adaptation of the long-running video game franchise stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Freaking Irons. These have to be the three most critically-acclaimed actors to ever star in a game-based movie. The latter two are Oscar winners, and Fassbender is an Oscar nominee. The movie was directed by Justin Kurzel, a talented up-and-comer whose previous film was a well-received adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard. Parts of the movie take place during the Spanish Inquisition, a time period the games have not explored and that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on film before. This was a movie with ambition, damn it.

And yet, it has a dismal 17% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that it was soundly thrashed by the critics.

So what happened?

Image: 20th Century Fox

Before I get into that, I need to explain how the games work, or none of this will make any sense. In the marketing for the games whenever a new one comes out, the trailers and TV commercials only show off the cool stuff: hooded badasses using hidden wrist blades and other pointy implements to singlehandedly take out legions of hapless suckers in cool historical backdrops. Sounds great, right? But what these ads don’t tell you is that the cool historical stuff is only part of the story.

The story revolves around the conflict between two ancient and secretive groups: the Assassins and the Templars. In most of the games, the player controls an Assassin, and the Templars are the primary antagonists. The games begin in the modern age, where a mega-corporation called Abstergo Industries (secretly run by the Templars) has developed a technology called the Animus, which allows people to relive their ancestors’ memories through a kind of super-advanced virtual reality.

The historical parts of the games are the main focus, but they’re all just flashbacks, a sort of game-within-a-game. The series’ timeline and mythology are incredibly convoluted, and even though I’ve played five or six of the games, I spend most of them not having any idea what is going on, and I couldn’t give less of a hoot about the Assassin/Templar conflict that has been raging throughout the centuries. Can you see how this might be problematic for a movie adaptation?

As much as I enjoy the historical parts of the games, the modern-day parts are an absolute snoozefest. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for example, you spend most of the game doing awesome pirate stuff like sinking people’s ships and taking their stuff, but every once in a while the game kicks you back into the present day and makes you wander around an office building and hack into security systems with an iPad. If that sounds boring, I can assure you that it is. I love Black Flag, it’s a fantastic game, but the present-day sections are as boring as hell, and I would always complete them as fast as possible so I could get back to the fun pirate stuff.

Image: Ubisoft

Well, in this sense the movie is a good interpretation of the games, since the historical sections are great but the modern-day stuff, well, isn’t. The film opens in 1492, with a man named Aguilar being inducted into the Assassins Brotherhood. Fast forward to 1986, and a young boy named Callum Lynch. He walks into his house one day to find his mother dead, apparently killed by his father. Men with guns converge on the house, and Callum’s father tells him to run. As he flees, Callum’s father is taken into custody by the armed men, under the command of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Fast forward again to Callum as an adult, now played by Michael Fassbender, who is on death row, and is soon executed by lethal injection.

Except he isn’t, or the movie would have ended a lot sooner. He wakes up at the Abstergo facility in Madrid, and is told by Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan’s daughter, that Abstergo has secreted him away because they want to use him in the Animus. Abstergo is looking for the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for free will, and Abstergo wants to use the Apple to subjugate humanity and end violence and corruption. Abstergo wants Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), as they believe that Aguilar’s memories will lead them to the Apple.

Did you get all that? Well strap in, because we’re just getting started. This does present an intriguing ideological conflict, since it could be argued that Abstergo’s motives are pure. Ending violence and corruption in the world sounds good, but taking away humanity’s free will in the process would be less good. The Assassins want humanity to be free, even if that means being free to destroy itself. Abstergo and the Templars are like the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, as their motives are okay but their methods leave a lot to be desired.

Image: 20th Century Fox

But the movie’s plot is ridiculously hard to follow. I haven’t played every game in the series, but I’ve played quite a few of them, and I still had very little idea of what was going on for most of the movie. I can only imagine how confusing the movie would be for someone who hadn’t played any of the games. And I have to say that the movie has the most baffling ending of just about any movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. It should end with a bang, but it ends with a whimper. And the end credits are fifteen minutes long, which is ludicrous. The movie’s running time is 115 minutes, but fifteen of those minutes are taken up by the end credits.

The film’s best parts are the flashback sequences that take place during the Spanish Inquisition. These are the scenes that follow Callum’s ancestor Aguilar, as he fights to keep the Apple of Eden from falling into Templar hands. These scenes also comprise most of the action sequences, which is great because you know that whenever Aguilar and his sidekick Maria show up, shit is about to go down. And the action sequences are great. They do a fantastic job of emulating the free-running style of combat in the games, and the athleticism of the stunt performers is impressive.

They also look great. The locations look very good and the sets, special effects, and particularly the costumes are all great. I give special consideration to the costumes because the outfit Aguilar wears is so cool, and looks exactly like something that would be seen in the games. There’s a real thrill in seeing an actual person looking like he could have walked off the screen from a video game.

Image: 20th Century Fox

But as much as I like the Aguilar sequences, they have two crucial flaws. The first flaw stems from the decisions the filmmakers made in adapting the Animus for the screen. In the games, the Animus is basically a chair a person lies down on and is hooked up to a bunch of machines, like in The Matrix. The filmmakers apparently decided this would be boring for an audience to watch (or perhaps too similar to The Matrix), and turned the Animus into a giant harness that descends from the ceiling in the middle of a large room, allowing for the person plugged in to the Animus to move around as he literally re-enacts his ancestor’s actions. It’s a cool idea, but the problem is that in the middle of the Aguilar-based action scenes, the movie cuts back to Callum hooked up to the Animus mimicking Aguilar’s actions. It severely disrupts the pacing of the fast-paced action sequences.

The other problem with the action sequences is that they are almost entirely bloodless. People are slashed and stabbed with barely a drop of blood spilled. The movie is rated PG-13, which is weird when you consider that all the games are Mature-rated, which is the video game equivalent to an R-rating. I hate it when people are killed in movies with swords or knives and there’s no blood. This isn’t because I want every movie to be as bloody as possible (I don’t). It’s because it takes me out of the moment. It kills the immersion because it makes me think, “I am watching a movie that was edited in order to get a PG-13 rating.” This is something you don’t want to think while watching a movie, because it means you’re not fully in to the experience.

For me personally, Assassin’s Creed the movie may very well be one of the most accurate game-to-movie adaptations ever made, since it mirrors my experience of playing the games almost perfectly. I love the historical sections despite their flaws, but the modern-day stuff is slow and boring and I just want it to be over. Just like in the games, the film’s modern-day sections are dull, taking viewers away from the vibrancy of the historical settings and depositing them in drab-looking rooms and hallways. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, and the characters are hard to care about. Justin Kurzel is a talented director, but adapting such a dense and convoluted video-game mythology to the big screen was always going to be a tall order.

Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is well worth checking out, however. Fassbender makes Macbeth a sympathetic character, a man who doesn’t realize he is a monster until it is far too late. And he has great chemistry with Marion Cotillard, who plays Lady Macbeth. It’s also a great-looking movie, and the ending sequence where Macbeth fights Macduff is stunning. Macbeth and Macduff do battle against the backdrop of a burning village, and the entire sequence is engulfed in an orange haze that gives it an eerie, dreamlike quality. The music in both Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed is awesome. Both films were scored by Kurzel’s brother Jed, and his moody, ominous music greatly improves each film. Both of Justin Kurzel’s films are rich in atmosphere, and Jed Kurzel’s music is a key part of that.

Is this, from a purely technical standpoint, the best video game movie ever made? Quite possibly, yes. It’s reasonably well-made and the acting is solid. But it is undone by several crippling flaws. In spite of its flaws, I have to give it some credit for at least trying to rise above its video-game-based-movie brethren. Can you think of any other movie based on a game that has actual ambition? This is the only one I know of. It’s hard to fault it for being too big for its britches because of this, even though the end result is a film that can generously be described as a mixed bag. Unsurprisingly, sequels are in the works, so maybe some of the narrative flaws will be worked out. I hope so, because there’s a lot of promise here. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Professional

Today it is my privilege to write about one of my all-time favorite movies, Luc Besson’s 1994 masterpiece Leon: The Professional.

The Professional is the most moving film about a guy who kills people for a living that has ever been made. I touched on it in a very old post from way back in 2012, but here I’m going to go in to much more detail, so a spoiler warning is in effect from here on out.

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Jean Reno plays Leon, a professional hitman living and working in New York City. He lives a simple life, living in a threadbare apartment with few possessions. He gets his orders from an Italian mobster named Tony, who holds court in the dining room of his restaurant. In his down time, Leon goes to the cinema to see old movie musicals (he’s a fan of Gene Kelly), does sit-ups every morning, and takes care of his houseplant, meticulously polishing every leaf so it looks nice. He sleeps in a chair in his living room every night, with a gun on the table next to him.

Leon is a gentle soul, and if he didn’t kill people for a living, you’d swear that he would never hurt a fly. One of Leon’s neighbors is a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman in her screen debut, in what remains one of her best performances.

Mathilda lives a tough life. Her father is abusive, her stepmother doesn’t care about her, and her half-sister is a spoiled brat who hates her. The one ray of sunshine in her life is her four-year-old brother, whom she adores. She has a couple of casual encounters with Leon, where he sees her sporting a black eye and smoking a cigarette. She tells him the black eye came from falling off her bike. Leon can tell this is a lie, but figures he can’t do much about it.

But despite her difficult family life, Mathilda is a spirited child. She is spunky and intelligent, with a spark in her eye that her jerk of a dad can’t diminish, no matter how much he slaps her around.

And it’s her dad that causes all of her trouble. Some shady fellows who turn out to be corrupt DEA agents are paying him to hold onto some cocaine for them, and they’re not happy when they suspect him of cutting the dope to keep some for himself. This leads to a shootout in which Mathilda’s entire family is killed while she is out shopping. When she gets back with the groceries, she has the street smarts to know that something is terribly wrong, and she knocks on Leon’s door at the end of the hall.

Leon has been watching through the peephole in his door, he knows that something’s up, and Mathilda knows that he’s watching her. The scene where she tearfully begs him to open the door is heartbreaking. The desperation in her voice just kills me. Leon reluctantly lets her in to his apartment, and the movie really takes off.

Mathilda quickly realizes that Leon is a hitman, although he prefers to be called a cleaner. She makes him a proposition: she’ll do all of his housework, and he will teach her how to clean. He initially refuses, but changes his mind when she proves her mettle to him.

The two of them develop a relationship. She does his housework and teaches him to read and write when she discovers he doesn’t know how, and he teaches her the tools and tricks of his trade. The relationship between the two of them is fascinating. He’s her surrogate father, sure, but it’s not quite that simple. He’s also her teacher, and she teaches him in return in ways he could never have expected.

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Movies with pivotal characters played by child actors are always tricky. It’s extraordinary how good the chemistry is between Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. In some ways, she’s more mature than he is. Leon is an expert at his profession, but he has few personal relationships and initially has no idea how to act with Mathilda. She teaches him about himself. She teaches him how to love life and gives him something to live for aside from his beloved houseplant. He loves his plant because it’s always happy, it doesn’t ask questions, and it doesn’t have roots, just like him. Mathilda tells him he should plant it someday, give it roots. Leon reluctantly agrees that he should. The metaphor with Leon’s plant is subtle in a way that most movies aren’t these days.

The thing about the relationship between Leon and Mathilda is that Mathilda is the dominant one. Reno plays Leon like he’s a bit slow mentally, and very emotionally repressed. Reno gives Leon a fascinating balance between his skills as an assassin and his simple personal life, and his gentle nature. Leon never tries to take advantage of Mathilda, and he never forces her into anything. Reno has said in interviews that he played Leon like he was mentally slow in order to make it easier for audiences to believe that he would have no sexual desire for Mathilda.

Okay, this next part is going to get uncomfortable but it has to be talked about. There’s a scene in the extended version of the movie where Mathilda tries to seduce Leon, and he turns her down. It’s an uncomfortable scene that was cut from the original theatrical version of the film, but it’s included on the Blu-Ray release. Despite the squirm-inducing nature of the scene, I feel it’s an important part of the relationship between the two of them. Describing the movie makes it sound a bit like Lolita with guns, but it’s quite a bit more emotionally complex than that.

The extended version of the movie is 24 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, and in my opinion is the better version. It fleshes out the Leon/Mathilda dynamic, it shows more of him teaching her how to be a cleaner, it gives more detail about Leon’s background, and it generally provides a fuller experience.

I’ve talked about two of the three central characters, Leon and Mathilda. The third is Norman Stansfield, the ringleader of the corrupt DEA agents who slaughter Mathilda’s family. Stansfield is played by a very young-looking Gary Oldman in what has to be one of the most bone-chilling performances ever committed to celluloid. You’re holding your breath every time he’s onscreen. Stansfield is a drug-addicted sociopath who loves classical music and feels no remorse for the things he’s done.

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I’m not sure why the DEA would hire such an unhinged madman, but maybe he’s just really good at hiding it when he needs to. I love cinematic villains, and Oldman’s performance as Stansfield is one of the all-time best. He is terrifying, and the fact that we are given no background for him whatsoever makes his unpredictability all the more frightening. Oldman’s delivery of the line “I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven,” before he kills Mathilda’s family sends chills down my spine every time. I can hardly believe the actor who played characters as good as Commissioner Gordon and Sirius Black also played one of the most soullessly evil people in cinematic history, but that’s just how good of an actor Oldman is.

The Professional features not one, not two, but THREE of all my all-time favorite cinematic performances. Reno, Portman and Oldman are all brilliant, and Luc Besson’s writing and directing are top-notch throughout. His film raises some difficult questions, but he never pushes it too far.

As the film progresses, Leon and Mathilda grow closer and closer. And it is in their relationship that the movie shows itself to be a love story. It’s a love story between two desperately lonely people who find each other at just the right point in their lives.

Although it should probably go without saying that it ends tragically. Stansfield eventually gets on to Leon and Mathilda, which leads to an epic confrontation with the NYPD SWAT team. In addition to being a riveting action sequence, the final showdown also provides some of the most genuinely touching moments of any film I’ve ever seen. In a desperate moment, Leon provides Mathilda with a means of escape, but she won’t go without him. “I don’t wanna lose you, Leon,” she pleads with him as tears streak her dirt-smeared face.

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“You’re not going to lose me,” Leon tells her. “You’ve given me a taste for life. I wanna be happy. Sleep in a bed, have roots. And you’ll never be alone again, Mathilda. I love you, now go.” That moves me so much my eyes are all misty just from typing it.

And poor Leon, he almost makes it. He has almost made good his escape from the cops, having disguised himself as a wounded SWAT officer, but he doesn’t quite get there. He doesn’t know that Stansfield has recognized him, and as Leon approaches freedom, there’s a flash, and he crumbles to the ground. Stansfield crouches over him victoriously, and Leon sees him.

“Stans…field…” Leon croaks.

“At your service,” Stansfield smirks.

Leon puts something in Stansfield’s hand. “This is from…Mathilda,” he gasps.

Stansfield opens his hand, and sees what looks like a pin with a ring attached to it. He opens Leon’s shirt and finds a string of grenades. The vile Stansfield barely has time to mutter “Shit,” before a massive explosion kills them both.

In the end, with nowhere else to go Mathilda returns to the girls school she dropped out of earlier in the film. She gets reassurance from the headmistress that they’ll do what they can to help her, and financial assistance promised from Leon’s mob pal Tony. After she talks to the headmistress, she goes outside, finds a nice spot in the grass, and plants Leon’s beloved houseplant. “I think we’ll be okay here, Leon,” she says, and the film ends.

This movie tears me up. Not many movies have the ability to move me to tears every time I watch them, but this one does. I don’t watch it all that often because it’s such an emotional rollercoaster, but every time I do watch it, by the end I feel profoundly moved.

This movie, man. This freaking movie. It blows me away. I think it’s easily Luc Besson’s best film. He juggles so many different aspects of the story and the characters, and makes it look easy. Some of the film’s content is troubling, but never so much so that it becomes too much to handle. Leon kills people for a living, and he kills several policemen in the film’s climax, and yet he’s an incredibly sympathetic character. This is a movie where the protagonist is a hired killer, and the antagonist is a government agent. Besson takes the usual setup for a hitman movie and flips it neatly on its head. The hitman doesn’t kill women or kids, the government agent does.

I’m not the only person who absolutely reveres this film. On the Internet Movie Database, it has a rating of 8.6 out of 10, which puts it at number 27 on their list of the 250 movies with the highest user ratings. That’s pretty impressive, and it shows how much the violent, tragic tale of Leon and Mathilda has resonated with people.

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The Professional is a movie that is entertaining and thrilling and nail-bitingly tense, but is also brilliantly acted and profoundly moving. I have never seen a movie like this one. There is a magic to it that is impossible to repeat. It may be a bit of dark magic, but it is magic nonetheless.