Film reviews round-up: American Assassin, The Villainess, The Jungle Bunch, My Pure Land

Geoffrey Macnab
Dylan O’Brien’s character boasts top martial arts and guns skills, a non-compliant personality and a recklessness driven by his own grief

American Assassin (18)

★★☆☆☆

Dir. Michael Cuesta, 112 mins, starring: Michael Keaton, Dylan O’Brien, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Adkins, Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet

In recent years, we’ve had American Gangster, American Hustle, American Sniper and American Made. Now comes American Assassin, an explosive and very silly thriller that draws on real-life events in an exploitative and dim-witted way.

The film, based on a novel by Vince Flynn, opens with a massacre on a beach. Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) has just proposed to his girlfriend and is buying her a cocktail when, out of nowhere, machine gun-toting terrorists appear. His fiancée is among the victims.

We then flash forward 18 months. The personable, puppyish young Mitch we saw on the beach seems to have turned into a Travis Bickle-like psychopath. He has grown a beard and taken up mixed martial arts. He is so determined to avenge his fiancée’s death that he is attempting to infiltrate an Islamic terrorist cell.

Mitch has learned the Koran backward and knows just how to ingratiate himself with the terrorists. (He tells them he wants to bathe his hands in “the blood of the infidel”.)

As it turns out, all the references to Islamic terrorism are really just a red herring. The main plot here is about renegade Iranians trying to build nuclear weapons and Mitch trying to stop them while desperately attempting to work out where he belongs in the world.

He’s a Jason Bourne-like renegade whose parents died when he was a kid. The CIA recruit him and send him off to special agent finishing school with legendary operative Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton).

Don’t come to American Assassin looking for sophisticated geopolitical analysis. “Some bad people are doing some bad things and it is our job to stop them,” is how Hurley’s unit defines its role. Mitch has all the traits to make the perfect agent – top martial arts and guns skills, a non-compliant personality and a recklessness driven by his own grief.

He is (in the argot of the bosses) “a section 8 with an axe to grind”. The film becomes increasingly simple-minded and the jargon begins to fly. We are treated to lines like ”get a chopper!” or “he’s got the nuke!”

Stan Hurley is the father figure, brutal but fair. He warns his charges early on that if they get caught in the field, they should kill themselves rather than face interrogation from their enemies. The big problem is that one of his favourite former students, “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), has turned against the US and is helping the Iranians procure their dirty weapon, which they plan to use against Israel.

If Stan is the brutal patriarch, CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) is the mother figure who wants to nurture Mitch and make him the most effective killing machine possible. There are all sorts of strange family connections between the other characters too. They are linked in ways not properly explained to us.

American Assassin is nothing if not brutal. There’s a very grim torture scene in which one agent gets his arm put in a clamp and has his nails ripped out one by one. Stan makes sure his charges know just how best to stab and strangle their adversaries and when it is appropriate to bite off their ears. Blood is spilled by the gallon.

It’s dismaying to see an actor as accomplished as Michael Keaton playing someone as dumb, macho and one-dimensional as Stan. Keaton just about gets away with it. He plays the role with such manic conviction that we almost believe in the character.

A few tourist-eye views of Rome and the opening beach scenes aside, there’s barely a moment here that isn’t at frantic pace. Mitch is far too driven to have any time for romance, even if he does briefly pretend to be the lover of the beautiful Iranian agent with whom he is working. Director Michael Cuesta, who made the almost equally harum scarum thriller Kill The Messenger, fills the movie with chases and fights. There are spectacular set-pieces involving cars, helicopters and speed boats.

The visual effects are a little creaky in places (the scenes with the US fleet confronted with gigantic waves look as if they might have been shot in the director’s bath) but the stunts are performed with plenty of conviction.

American Assassin looks as if it is intended as the first in a series but there’s nothing here which we haven’t seen countless times before in Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher stories or that justifies a new movie.

The Villainess (18)

★★★★☆

Dir. Byung-gil Jung, 124 mins, starring: Eun-ji Jo, Ok-bin Kim, Seo-hyeong Kim, Ye-Ji Min, Ha-kyun Shin, Jun Sung

The Villainess is a wonderfully lurid and overcooked thriller with a plot so melodramatic that you half suspect the filmmakers borrowed it from an opera.

Director Jung Byung-gil certainly isn’t the type to hang around. Within the very first minute or two of the film, the body count is already reaching into the dozens if not the hundreds. The opening is filmed with the ingenuity that used to be reserved for show-stopping numbers in old musicals.

It’s an elaborately choreographed set-piece in which someone walks through the corridors of a warehouse/drugs lab, shooting, stabbing and strangling armies of gangsters. We see the slaughter from the point of view of the killer. We know by her breathing that she is a woman. The sequence is shot in a single take. It is macabre in the extreme but also very graceful in its own Kill Bill-like way.

The heroine Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) may have astonishing skills as an assassin but that doesn’t make her life any less traumatic or complicated. As a child, she witnesses the killing of her father from under the bed. She is raised by a gangster boss who becomes her lover but also, potentially, her most bitter enemy.

She is recruited by the special forces who blackmail her into working for them by telling her it is the only way she can have a normal life with her beloved daughter, whom she is bringing up as a single mum.

The plotting is embroiled and, at times, confusing. Bizarrely, but very engagingly, the filmmakers take time-outs from the bloodletting to show us Sook-hee’s domestic life. She’s a doting mum. Her daughter is very sweet-natured.

The next door neighbour appears to be in love with her and is courting her in an old-fashioned way. If ever it rains, he is bound to be there with an umbrella. It’s as if we are watching two separate movies.

Whenever the romanticism risks becoming too soppy, we’ll be treated to some more highly stylised and kinetic violence. This is the kind of movie in which we see blood spurt onto the camera lens and in which characters have sword fights while riding motorbikes at breakneck speed. As the heroine, Kim Ok-bin is disarmingly sweet natured and demure. That, though, is when she is off duty. In the action scenes, she is lethal.

Against the odds, the film isn’t just a self-conscious exercise in Nikita-like pastiche. There is heart here too. When they’re not killing each other, the characters become very emotional indeed. Sometimes, that emotion spills into the action sequences. There’s a lot of bluff and double bluff.

Vengeance is on everyone’s minds. Nonetheless, even the most hardened killers turn out to have a very sentimental side. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to make an action movie that’s also a weepie.

The Villainess is a film that startles us not only with its violence and its incredibly intricate action scenes but also with its raw feelings. We are more shocked by the displays of gentleness and selflessness than we are by the expected scenes of stabbings, shootings and decapitations

The Jungle Bunch (U)

★★☆☆☆

Dir. Eric Tosti, David Alaux, 97 mins, voiced by: Michel Mella, Emmanuel Curtil (voice), Paul Borne (voice)

There’s a welcome strain of surrealist humour to this otherwise underwhelming kids’ animated movie. The main villain is a koala bear called Igor who is an expert at causing explosions. The hero is a penguin called Maurice who is under the illusion that he is a tiger and likes to paint stripes on himself. His son is a little fish.

For reasons only partly explained, Igor is determined to destroy the jungle. (He wanted to be part of the elite gang of animals preserving order in the jungle, but they rejected him.) When his first attempt at setting the trees on fire is nearly successful, he is banished to a desert island but he escapes back to the mainland with a metronomic crab as his new accomplice.

The Jungle Bunch started as a TV series. The filmmakers don’t make that many concessions to newcomers who haven’t encountered any of these characters before. It isn’t really explained how the penguin got to the jungle in the first place or why he thinks he’s a tiger.

The lack of background information adds to the film’s disorienting effect. There are some very bizarre moments along the way (Maurice rubbing cream into the buttocks of a monkey; a rhino and an elephant having a fight underground; the toads Al and Bob being squashed so hard they’re almost fossilised).

The film doesn’t make much sense and the animation isn’t especially sophisticated but the young kids at whom it is aimed should warm to its cheery tone while the adults might appreciate its anarchic streak and some of its off-the-wall humour.

My Pure Land (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir. Sarmad Masud, 98 mins, starring: Suhaee Abro, Tayyab Ifzal, Eman Fatima, Syed Tanveer Hussain, Atif Akhtar Bhatti,

British-Pakistani director Sarmad Masud’s impressive debut feature is a surprising affair: a drama set in rural Pakistan and based on a true story but that plays like a feminist version of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.

Instead of John Wayne defending the prison house, we have the redoubtable 18-year-old heroine Nazo (played by actress and dancer Suhaee Abro) armed with an AK-47. She and her younger sister are defending the homestead from an uncle who claims the property should be his.

As Nazo’s beloved father tells the daughters: “This isn’t just land. This is your honour.” (“Land disputes are prevalent throughout Pakistan,” the opening intertitles tell us. “There are over one million cases pending.” The bias remains firmly against female onwership.)

Masud’s screenplay highlights the dismissive way in which women are treated by the menfolk. They have no property rights. They are beholden to their husbands. The uncle and his henchmen are contemptuous of Nazo, her mother and sister. The police are openly corrupt. The family’s only other way of protecting itself is to hire mercenaries – but that’s not something the father can afford to do.

In flashbacks, we learn how the father taught Nazo to shoot. At first, she hated guns and was terrified of them. Soon, though, she learned to use them. The story flits backwards and forwards in time in occasionally confusing fashion as the siege continues.

There are dream sequences too. The father is languishing in jail and Nazo is thinking back to happier times with him. He used to call his daughters “outlaws” and took pride in their self-reliance.

The tempo here is different to that of the westerns that clearly inspired the director. The film is reflective and lyrical. Masud throws in plenty of magic hour shots of sunsets over rolling landscapes or of cattle standing idly by as gunmen crawl through the undergrowth.

Nonetheless, we’re never under any illusion about the danger the women are in. The authorities aren’t going to help them even if the land legally belongs to them. Just occasionally, the dialogue feels forced.

Characters will utter lines like ”men are cheap but bullets are expensive” that strike an incongruous note. One of the points of My Pure Land is that it is escaping from the usual macho stereotyping.

Suhaee Abro makes a very engaging heroine. She plays Nazo as a courageous figure but also a sensitive and idealistic one too. We can’t help but root for her as the family’s predicament grows ever more desperate.

The film was produced by Everton FC chairman Bill Kenwright. The controversial Arsenal shareholder Alisher Usmanov’s name is also on the credits alongside that of Everton investor Farhad Moshiri.

They’re unlikely supporters of a small art house film which sets out to expose corruption and misogyny in a small rural community in Pakistan but there are surely far worse ways in which they can spend their money.