Truth is stranger than fiction, or so the saying goes, and this cliché proverb is the foundation of Netflix’s latest original feature film, “True Memories of an International Assassin,” which was released on Nov. 11. “Beasts of No Nation” (2015) proved that Netflix’s films can compete for critical acclaim, and “True Memoirs of an International Assassin” proves that Netflix is capable of producing thoroughly mediocre pictures.
The film follows affable, socially-awkward accountant Sam Larson (Kevin James), who spends his free time researching and writing an elaborate espionage novel, “Memoirs of an International Assassin.” Sam’s conversations with a former Mossad agent, writing and time spent practicing hand-to-hand combat are an escape from his humdrum, corporate existence. Fortunately, the audience doesn’t have to work too hard to divine Sam’s motivations as, in the interest of subtlety, he announces during the first act that he writes as an “escape.”
Despite beating the audience over the head with character motivations, the film opens strong with a series of scenes depicting Sam finishing his book. Each scene begins with Sam tapping at his laptop before the camera cuts to a harbor front, where Sam’s international assassin alter ego battles many Kalashnikov-wielding mercenaries. The well-choreographed fight sequences are worthy of “The Expendables” (2010), but they grind to a halt when Sam can’t figure out where the action should go next. Fights stop mid-punch as the fictional combatants stand around waiting for instructions from the author in an amusing take on Sam’s stop-start writing process.
The quick cuts between the action and Sam behind his keyboard allow James – not exactly a renowned thespian – to display a surprising amount of range as Sam struggles mightily to find a “signature line” for his book’s character. The only real rough patch in these scenes is a truly atrocious computer-generated shot of a helicopter crashing into water that is for some reason shown twice.
The helicopter crash may as well be a metaphor for the film’s direction after its opening. After a clumsy attempt to establish that Sam should live his own life rather than “writing other people’s stories,” an amoral publisher publishes Sam’s novel as non-fiction under the title “True Memoirs of an International Assassin.” The overnight success of Sam’s book leads him to an interview with Katie Couric, which he bungles spectacularly after he gets nervous and flees the building. Immediately after the interview, shadowy figures abduct Sam and insert him directly into the midst of a Venezuelan coup. His task is, of course, to assassinate the president.
Once the setting shifts to Venezuela, the film goes completely off the rails. The plot rockets from meetings between conspirators to overly-long fight sequences with only James’ bemused expression to tie the disparate elements together. The uniformly wooden acting doesn’t help either, but Andy García plays cigar-smoking revolutionary El Toro with a wry self-awareness that makes his caricature of a character a highlight.
The tonal shifts are equally erratic. The film attempts to comment on American foreign policy by depicting intelligence officers as callous, underpaid and casual racists before, in the same breath, making a fat joke at James’ expense.
“True Memoirs of an International Assassin” is clearly trying its best to spoof testosterone-soaked action movies in the same way “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2015) masterfully lampooned the James Bond franchise. But unlike “Kingsman,” “True Memoirs” isn’t sure how seriously it should take itself and so hedges its bets. The result is a film that combines fat jokes with empty-headed political commentary to produce a picture as tonally confused as its characters are about whether Sam really is an international assassin. (He isn’t.) Given the rich library of content on Netflix, this original is one to skip.