D: Jeff Wadlow / 98m
Cast: Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Kim Coates, Zulay Henao, Maurice Compte, Andrew Howard, Yul Vazquez, Leonard Earl Howze, Rob Riggle, P.J. Byrne, Kelen Coleman, Katie Couric
Sometimes you just want to sit down and watch a movie and not have to think about it. Sometimes all you need is a movie that you don’t expect much from, or a movie that you’re pretty sure isn’t going to live up to any expectations you may or may not have, and just be that movie, the one that you can watch without waiting for this moment or that moment to happen. A movie that, when it’s over, you can say, “Okay, that did the trick, I needed that.” A movie that can be as awful as it likes, and it doesn’t make any difference. All it needs to do is keep you occupied – mostly – for an hour and a half (or maybe more) and maybe help you tick the box marked “Seen it”.
A perfect candidate for this kind of movie is True Memoirs of an International Assassin, the latest “comedy” from Netflix. After The Ridiculous 6 (2015) and Special Correspondents (2016), you might think that Netflix would have wanted to reconsider their comedy projects, but True Memoirs… shoots down that idea within the first fifteen minutes, the period in which the movie is at its funniest. Would-be writer Sam Larson (James) is putting the finishing touches to his latest book. We see his lead character, Mason Carver (also James), fight off a horde of bad guys until he’s faced by one carrying an RPG. Deciding that an RPG is a little over the top, Sam has trouble coming up with an alternative. While he thinks about it, we see Mason and the (ex-)RPG carrier waiting around for the solution so that they can continue. They look like two actors on a set waiting for the next set up, or new script pages. It’s funny, and anyone watching the movie should remember this sequence well, because once it’s over, that’s as funny as the movie gets.
They say that comedy is harder than straight drama, and watching True Memoirs… is like trying to watch a comedy that has taken that particular maxim to heart and is doing everything it can to prove the saying right. Rejected by seemingly every publisher under the sun, Sam’s ambitions are kept alive by the unexpected appearance of an online publishing rep called Kylie (Coleman). She takes his manuscript, makes one very important change to the title, and the next thing he knows, Sam has a runaway bestseller on his hands. That change? It’s in the movie’s title: Sam’s book was originally called Memoirs of an International Assassin. Though his book is a work of fiction, Sam does his research, and he’s helped by his friend and ex-Mossad analyst, Amos (Rifkin) (can everyone say “lazy plotting”?). A story about a real assassin who was around in the Eighties and was called the Ghost, has found its way into Sam’s book, and now it’s non-fiction status and level of detail has people thinking Sam is actually the Ghost.
Now, if you’re watching this on Netflix – and chances are more people will see it there than will buy it on DVD or Blu-ray – then this is the point at which you should pause the movie and think very hard about that last sentence. People think Sam is really the Ghost. Later on this month (the 26th to be exact), Kevin James will be forty-two years old (and looks it). In order for Sam to be the Ghost he would have had to have been a pre-teen when he began his life as an international assassin. But nobody – seriously, nobody – brings this up. Not Andy Garcia’s Venezuelan freedom fighter, not his second-in-command, Juan (Compte), not even bumbling CIA field agents Cleveland (Howze) and Cobb (Riggle). Can everyone say “stupid plotting”?
Sam is kidnapped by Garcia’s El Toro and threatened with a horrible death unless he agrees to kill the Venezuelan President, Miguel Cueto (Coates). Through a further series of encounters too tedious to recount here, Sam is also tasked with killing a Russian criminal called Anton Masovich (Howard). Aided by DEA agent, Rosa Bolivar (Henao), Sam manages to avoid getting killed long enough to put a plan of sorts into action, one that involves bugging the President, and supporting El Toro’s revolution. By this stage, the screenplay – by director Wadlow and Jeff Morris – is intent on piling on huge levels of exposition onto huge levels of exposition as it does its best to make what should be a simple enough premise into something much more unwieldy and irksome. It’s a scenario that abandons simplicity almost from the beginning, and never looks back (it may actually be frightened to).
Fans of brain-dead comedies will no doubt enjoy True Memoirs… but for everyone else, the endless machinations that keep Sam ahead of everyone else will soon become tiresome, and the decreasing attempts at making the viewer laugh will become horribly apparent. By the movie’s end, discerning viewers will be wondering if they’ve really just wasted ninety-eight minutes of their life on this farrago, while even those viewers who were looking for the kind of distraction mentioned in the first paragraph will be shaking their heads in despair. When you end up hoping for something to come along to distract you from the distraction you’re already experiencing, then it’s time to choose your distractions more carefully.
Forced to carry the weight of the movie on his shoulders, James struggles to remain cheerful throughout, and soon gives in to the script’s requirement that he repeat over and over that he’s not the Ghost, while behaving like a petulant coward (and looking for a way out of his contract). James has a proscribed gift for physical comedy, but here he’s not given the chance to highlight that gift. Instead he’s pressed more into action hero mode, acquitting himself well in a series of fight scenes that are well choreographed and surprisingly invigorating. At all other times he plays the same physically awkward, bumbling, slightly desperate character he pretty much always plays. It makes you think that if True Memoirs… was written with James in mind, then he needs to avoid these kind of scripts in the future.
Orchestrating it all is Wadlow, a writer/director who for some reason was allowed to give us Kick-Ass 2 (2013). The same stumbling approach to the material that marred that movie is repeated here, with unexplained tonal shifts thrown in for good measure, and the cast encouraged to play their roles as clichéd stereotypes, or even stereotypical clichés. Garcia is wasted in his role (and that’s not a drug reference), Compte and Vazquez are allowed to pop up every now and then and add little to the overall narrative, Henao is tasked with being earnest while the camera focuses elsewhere, and Coates is in a different movie altogether as the Venezuelan President whose real name is Mike, and who doesn’t want the job anymore. Such is the variety and the standard of the performances, it’s obvious that Wadlow gave everyone carte blanche to do what they wanted. It would have been best if they’d all said no to the script (and a working holiday in the Dominican Republic), and just stayed at home. And if they needed to, watched something distracting.
Rating: 3/10 – while comedy is definitely harder to pull off than drama, there’s no argument when the comedy doesn’t even try that hard to beat the odds; a prime example of less is less, True Memoirs of an International Assassin is an embarrassing hodge-podge of stock situations and characters that reinforces the idea that when it comes to movies, Netflix are really good at making television shows.