“True Memoirs of an International Assassin” opens with an unusual degree of promise for a feature-length Netflix comedy, as trained killer Sam Larson (Kevin James!) infiltrates a dockside shipping yard in broad daylight and goes full “Metal Gear Solid” on a group of henchmen. And you know what? The Artist Formerly Known as The King of Queens pulls it off. Nobody is going to mistake James for Tony Jaa, but he clearly put some practice into becoming a remotely believable ass-kicker, and the violence is shot in such a distant and sterile way that the comedian’s movements look all the more striking. And then James gets shot in the chest with a rocket launcher and explodes in a plume of digital blood. The world, it turns out, is not ready for a relatively straight-faced action-comedy in which a heavyset white dude can play a lethal mercenary who struggles with his body image.
You see, James isn’t actually playing an international assassin — he’s playing a guy who’s writing one. And “True Memoirs of an International Assassin” isn’t actually a step up from the Adam Sandler garbage upon which Netflix has built its film comedy brand — it just looks like one.
Sam is a middle-aged schlub who works a soulless corporate gig, suffers an emasculating boss, and fantasizes about the woman who lives down the hall in his sterile apartment building. He is the least interesting man in the world. But Sam has a secret double life: He moonlights as a wannabe Lee Child, writing himself into the stuff of schlocky airport novels (in the film’s only interesting gambit, we watch in real-time as Sam’s alter-ego performs whatever thrilling acts of heroism the author types into his laptop).
The excerpts we’re shown are enough to suggest that the guy shouldn’t quit his day job, but it soon becomes clear that he isn’t pulling this stuff out of thin air. On the contrary, Sam’s crap opus is heavily inspired by the retired Mossad agent (the great Ron Rifkin) who haunts the local pool hall and regales his friends with stories about a legendary assassin called “The Ghost.” It’s all fun and games until — in what might be the least plausible scene ever performed for motion picture cameras — Sam is signed by a millennial lit agent in a coffee shop who e-publishes his Ghost fan-fiction under the title “True Memoirs of an International Assassin.” Suddenly, he’s being interviewed by Katie Couric on national television, and finds himself at imminent risk of being exposed as the James Frey of the cloak-and-dagger set. Unlike James Frey, however, the people mentioned in Sam’s book are the type with long memories and short trigger fingers. Gulp!
You think you know where this is going, but you’re wrong — the reality is far more boring. Sam, mistaken for the legendary killer he wrote about in his book, is kidnapped by a warlord known as El Toro (Andy Garcia, milking laughs from a stone) and forcibly commissioned to assassinate the President of Venezuela. As if that randomly selected South American country doesn’t have enough problems, now they have to deal with an armed Kevin James. But wait, it gets dumber: Before you have time to accept that one homicidal maniac could be convinced that Sam is a legendary hitman, our hero is coerced into the service of a hyper-violent Russian drug lord named Massovich (Andrew Howard), who has a totally different agenda and a last name that is the subject of at least two terrible jokes. There’s also the obligatory female ass-kicker (Zulay Henao), a no-nonsense DEA agent who exists for no other reason than to look pretty and remind Sam of his self-worth. On the bright side, Henao is only 14 years younger than James, which makes her practically geriatric for a romantic lead in this kind of thing.
It doesn’t take long for this brainless fish-out-of-water comedy to become more convoluted than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” — Sam might recognize that he’s not much of a storyteller, but writer-director Jeff Wadlow (“Kick-Ass 2”) seems to think of himself as the John Le Carré of projects that Adam Sandler probably passed on.
Using an overabundance of plot to pave over a remarkable paucity of jokes, “Memoirs” quickly tailspins into a lifeless supercut of cheap action, terrible gags, and a series of scenes in which increasingly dangerous stereotypes are fooled into believing that Sam is an actual assassin. The joke doesn’t get old, it starts old and then slowly rolls towards the grave. The film’s funniest idea — a series of Spanish-language pop covers that range from Taylor Swift to Duran Duran — is stolen wholesale from better comedies like Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator.” Yes, better comedies like Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator.” That’s where we are.
As for James, well, he’s definitely in the movie? If anything, his role is so rote that it exposes why so many of his films can’t seem to find a heartbeat, in spite of his sweet doofus screen persona. “You are a man of words, not a man of action,” someone says to Sam, effectively describing most of the characters that James plays. But the problem isn’t that the self-pitying vanilla dweeb is more of an archetype than he is a character, the problem is that his particular archetype — unlike, say, the mysterious gunslinger who blows into town at the beginning of a Western — is insufferably entitled to adventure. To action. To women. To our collective interest. Everything just sort of happens to him, so much so that he never has to earn it. How fitting for a Netflix movie that will simply show up on the service and hang around on the home page until you to lower your standards enough to watch it. Don’t. Not only are these memoirs fake, they’re also instantly forgettable.
“True Memoirs of an International Assassin” will be available on Netflix starting Friday, November 11.