True Memoirs Of An International Assassin is cleverer than the average Kevin James comedy, though its better gags are unlikely to inspire more than a snicker. As always, James, the sitcom star who made the jump to movies under the aegis of Adam Sandler, plays a sad sack with dreams above his station. His character, Sam Larson, is a mid-level office drone who escapes the drudgery of his day-to-day existence by writing pulpy spy novels, plotted with the help of his pool-hall buddy Amos (Ron Rifkin), a retiree who claims to have once worked a desk job at Mossad. Rejected by literary agents, Sam’s latest manuscript is picked up by a low-rent e-publisher, who retitles the book True Memoirs Of An International Assassin and markets it as nonfiction. Soon, Sam finds himself kidnapped by El Toro (Andy Garcia), a revolutionary who wants him to assassinate the president of Venezuela, and crossing paths with the Russian drug lord Masovich (Andrew Howard, switching between several different accents) and various bigwigs of the Venezuelan government, all of whom believe that Sam is a super-spy who’s just playing dumb.
Director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2, Never Back Down) parodies the conventions of slick action movies, but makes an important (but common) mistake; his direction is too tongue in cheek to create actual excitement or suspense, but doesn’t aspire to a level of humor any deeper than intentional cliché. One might call it a poor man’s Edgar Wright movie. There are formal gags (most involving the visualization of Sam’s writing process), winking musical cues (including Spanish-language covers of “In The Air Tonight,” “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”, and “Hungry Like The Wolf”), and eccentric villains, but they’re tempered by the low effort that has become the signature of Netflix’s original comedy features. From Christopher Guest’s Mascots and Ricky Gervais’ Special Correspondents to the Sandler vehicles The Do-Over and The Ridiculous 6, the streaming giant has positioned itself as the premier platform for star comedians to release movies that seem vaguely familiar (though “vaguely familiar” also describes its dwindling catalogue of non-original content).
Even the idea of a violent bad guy with bizarre tastes is a familiar cliché at this point; the trigger-happy, Speedo-wearing Masovich, who has a bottomless thirst for the carbonated alcoholic beverage Zima (imported from Japan, the last place where it’s sold), could have been created by an automated comedy screenwriting program. The same is true of the CIA agents (Rob Riggle and Leonard Earl Howze) who trade riffs as they watch the whole thing unfold from behind their command center. But the predictable intrigue of True Memoirs Of An International Assassin’s script at least gives it a modicum of narrative urgency: deals, double crosses, misunderstandings. James, who has a gifted dramatic actor hiding somewhere inside of him, is better at neurotic exasperation than physical comedy, which means that he’s more fun to watch as a high-strung everyman thrown into a series of increasingly ridiculous twists than as a wimp coming into his own as a hero.
As the movie relies more and more on the nominal humor of a doughy, middle-aged man running and fighting in slow motion, one can’t help but become more appreciative of the brighter spots in the supporting cast, including Garcia, who has fun playing a parody of a gruff militant, and Zulay Henao, cast as a gun-toting DEA agent who talks in hard-boiled one-liners and represents the ideal of Sam’s alter ego. Furthermore, it seems hard to believe that it’s taken this long for someone to try to stage a suspense set piece to the original recording of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” This mostly lifeless sequence, set at a gala at the presidential palace, may represent the first time that anyone has watched a Kevin James movie and wished it were directed by Brian De Palma.