Friday, 29 September 2017



A reviewer has called American Assassin a Trump-era thriller. Presumably evoking the US President’s threat to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea. May appear that way. A celebration of ultra-violent machismo – its hero a man crazed with desire for revenge. A glorification of Navy SEAL’s toughness and exploits. A panoply of America’s perceived bad guys. Ending with the annihilation of the ghostly villain in an awesome nuclear conflagration…geddit it?

Revenge is a low but powerful motive. President G.W. Bush invaded Iraq ostensibly to remove non-existent WMDs but, some opine, to punish Saddam Hussein – ‘the man who tried to kill my dad’. Mitch, the American assassin (played by pretty boy Dylan O’Brien), sets out to avenge the murder of the beautiful girl he loved, gunned down by rampaging Islamists on an idyllic Ibiza beach. Posing as a convert, he grows an ugly beard, mugs up Arabic – to the implausible point of learning the details of Prophet Muhammad’s family life – and penetrates a Jihadi cell. Unfortunately a CIA swat team wipes out the baddies, cheating him of his vendetta. The spooks figure he is good killing material and a promising, unpleasant career looms for Mitch.

Despite the opening scene, Islamists are not the chief bogeys of American Assassin. Correction: Muslims still are but of another variety. Shia Iran takes Sunni Arabs’ place. Neat. Extremists who desire – surprise, surprise - ‘to kill Jews’. Sore over their government’s nuclear deal with the US, they try to secure Russian plutonium material for purposes you can guess. This time Mitch isn’t required to get trilingual in Russian and Farsi and learn about St Seraphim of Sarov or the Hidden Imam. His boss Stan, veteran Cold War warrior, impossibly hard and wise, pulls the strings. But Mitch too is American, rugged individualism & all that, and so in Istanbul (speaks Turkish!) he single-handedly terminates a bunch of bastards and saves the day, albeit temporarily.

American Assassin is a film for men – which is partly why I enjoyed it – but Hollywood rules demand females must also play a role. Bit tokenistic, though. The top, black but unglamorous CIA chief is one. The other is young, not-so-good-looking Annika, seemingly a fellow operative, who turns out to be an Iranian spy. There is no time for Mitch to get amorous with Annika before she blows her brains out to spare Mitch an agonising choice as she is used as a human shield. Which means that Mitch runs through his killing sprees without ever having sex. Warrior monk, is he? Or maybe the unspoken macho lesson is that war is better, more sexy than love?

In a movie like this, a good baddie is supremely important. Here he is ‘the Ghost’, a disaffected, former CIA agent. A corny, overdone device used with superb and superior dramatic effect in 007’s Skyfall. There the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem rendered the peerless portrait of a rancorous, fiendish criminal. Alas, Taylor Kitsch as the Ghost isn’t charismatic enough. His performance lacks that demonic quality. Even as he pulls out captive Stan’s fingernails (I had to shut my sensitive Latin eyes over that sequence) he fails to rivet. Maybe because he is Canadian? Too dull a lot?

The Ghost apart, American Assassin fingers Iran as the main threat to ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. The final sequence indeed has Mitch relaxing in Dubai but still shadowing an Iranian politician, with perhaps not wholly pacific intent…But this obsession with Iran puzzles me. Revenge again? No doubt many Americans still smart over the 1979 storming of their Tehran embassy and the hostage crisis that followed. However, Ayatollah Khomeini is dead and the Iranian revolution’s outreach is now somewhat notional. Iran does not seek to invade neighbouring countries. So, why the fixation?

Mossad? Its agents get mentioned in the movie. As the good guys, naturally. On America’ side. Does Mossad explain it? Netanyahu and his far right Likud party rant away about Iran, non-stop. It looks like extreme paranoia. All right, Iran supports Hezbollah – Israel’s thorn in the flesh – but Hezbollah is a Lebanese resistance movement, not a Jihadi outfit. And Iran actively fights ISIS and other terrorists in Syria. Shouldn’t Netanyahu approve of that? Or does Israel perhaps prefer to keep Syria ravaged by Jihadis, rather than an ordered country as a neighbour? A perverse strategy.

I mentioned Trump but that was unfair. Too easy to scapegoat America’s current President as a unique war-monger. Didn’t so popular & liberal Democrat President Kennedy back Cuba’s invasion? Did he not increase military intervention in Vietnam? To the point of using use napalm bombing? The truth is that America is an empire. Not officially so but in actuality. And no empire is conceivable without the use of force. America is the modern equivalent, mutatis mutandis, of the Roman Empire. Appropriately, the father of the Roman race was Mars, the god of war. And ancient Rome’s history is that of war without ends. Note that in Rome there was a temple whose doors were shut in times of peace and throughout Rome’s millenarian history that only happens twice. So empires by definition must be violent. That’s their logic. Mitch’s violence fits into that. Whatever the boy’s initial grief, he is simply a tool. An instrument of a mighty, imperial war machine.

‘Dura Lex, sed Lex’, my Roman ancestors would say.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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