Wabbit season, duck season, James Bond casting season. In 2004, Daniel Craig proved he could sex it up and shoot it up in Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake (2004), leading to his 14-year run as James Bond. In 2023, the assassin Morgan Gaines shot Bond-Hopeful Henry Golding in the foot and director Camille Delamarre ordered the hit.
There’s a beautiful world of good, straight-to-video action films built for pizza and Mountain Dew on a Friday night. Unfortunately, Assassin Club (2023) is not one of those films. It should be, but instead, the film is structured so poorly either in the edit or on the page that one has to wonder if the AMPTP reacted so strongly to the WGA’s request to ban generative AI from screenwriting is because Chat-GPT is already at work. Fortunately, the film is still better than anything that plagiarism machine would regurgitate, a stale layer of execution crushing a good idea, futilely held up by a few key players bearing the weight like Atlas.
Henry Golding (Last Christmas/Snake Eyes) plays Morgan Gaines, British Marine turned assassin working for Sam Neill’s (Event Horizon) Caldwell, the Feukes to Gaine’s Barry. Neill is by far the best part of Assasin Club, attempting to turn in an elder-statesman performance with a side of ham, which is what a film like this needs. Frequently, Neill seems to be the only person on screen who knows what kind of picture he’s in. The two best scenes of the film, his first in-person meeting with Golding and his first scene with Naomi Rapace’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Falk, are both anchored by Neill lending gravitas to this world of assassins, even if that world makes no coherent sense.
In contrast, it seems that Golding, a brilliant and charming actor who should be shining here, was given the instruction “Just be a badass,” for every line reading. Neill is right in the pocket, employing bitter condensation to grease his lines with something, delivering pounds of exposition with a “Don’t you know idiot?” attitude that gives us the unironic banger “I’m out, too…of SOY SAUCE!” Best line in the film.
Exposition is the main problem with the film in both writing and editing. Assassin Club is built on a good premise: What if the best assassins in the world were all hired to kill each other at the same time?
It’s a simple pitch for either a great, grounded story about crime and violence, or a heightened world of fantastical assassins in cool matchups. It’s easy to see why it sold in the room. But the assassins of this world are too pedestrian to be cool and too heightened to be believable. This ill-defined tone is symptomatic of the expository dialogue, which both explains nothing and over-explains everything. Often, an expository scene will conclude only for the following scene to go over the same information. A few times, the film even does this with back-to-back lines in the same scene. Assassin Club appears to be terrified that its plot is too elaborate for you to follow, even in scenes as simple as two lovers greeting each other. Early on, Golding meets his girlfriend Sophie (Daniela Melchior) at her workplace, and the simple act of her walking across the courtyard is cut like Taken 3 (2014)’s infamous 16-cut jump over a fence. The moment is stretched out extensively to make sure you don’t miss anything. But it’s just a hug. The film is 1 hr. 54 min. long, full of repetitive scenes, lines, and shots, stretching what could have been a tight popcorn film into a streaming product that can fit more commercial breaks into some eventual home on a streamer with an ad-tier plan.
Besides Sam Neill, the other shoulder upon which this film rests is cinematographer Matthew Chuang (You Won’t Be Alone), who manages to light and shoot the film dynamically, even if he or the Art Department are forced to bathe some frames in random, monochromatic RGB lights in order to cover up an anemic budget. It’s truly impressive how well Chuang’s camera team and the colorists created a colorful frame with strong shadows instead of settling for a muted grey or LOG-tan-toned look that so many films are employing these days.
There are other areas where Assassin Club comes up short, such as an empty sound mix or astoundingly bad accent work, but perhaps the most important is the sex and romance. Daniela Melchior, great in other things like The Suicide Squad (2021), is given nothing to do except show off her bare back. In a ridiculously flat role as the girlfriend in harm’s way, Melchior takes on the thankless task of instilling this film with some sense of Bondian, erotic romance. Keeping with the ill-defined tone of this world’s underworld, Assassin Club asks Melchior and Golding into bed several times with a negotiated austerity, while presenting it as a scandalously romantic sexuality. In an era of sexless action films, this film tries to have its cake and eat it, too. Explicit nudity is not necessary to create a convincing romance, erotic or otherwise, but the way the film halfheartedly asks Melchior to partially undress without authentic intention is a lame play at edginess. It’s truly impressive how the direction of this film manages to drain Golding and Melchior of all chemistry but for a handful of lines in a grocery store. Henry Golding is a man hewn from a solid block of charm, Melchior usually oozes it as well, but here the only reason they seem to be together is that they are both fit and the only local singles.
Full of fairly good ideas cut to shreds yet somehow cutting none of what it should, Assassin Club somehow finds the audacity to insert a sequel tease amongst its uncharacteristically rushed ending. Will Henry Golding be James Bond? I think he’d be good in the role, but he should have given this movie the Goldfinger, and so should you.
Available on digital May 16th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD June 6th, 2023.
Final Score: 1 out of 5.
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