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The Streaming Pile: ‘True Memoirs of an International Assassin’

With much of the country stuck inside and bingeing movies relentlessly, there are plenty of places that will tell you the best movies to watch, but one staffer is looking through the bottom of the Netflix catalog to explore some of the worst originals on the service. This week, he explores the bizarre 2016 Kevin James action-comedy.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

With billions across the globe (hopefully) doing their part to stay at home and flatten the curve, people suddenly have a lot of time on their hands—and no new sporting events or movies to entertain them. There has never been a better chance to check out that book you’ve always been meaning to read, or finally chip away at your bloated Netflix queue. But while Netflix has a lot of quality content at their disposal, the streamer doesn’t exactly have a flawless critical record—you don’t spend billions in original programming without releasing a crapload of duds. And so, to help distract you during these stressful and unprecedented times, I will be navigating the bowels of Netflix’s original movie library every week to find the worst of the worst. This recurring column will continue until it is safe to go outdoors or my resolve breaks; whichever comes first. We begin with the 2016 Kevin James vehicle, True Memoirs of an International Assassin.

Adam Sandler has figured it out. He’s a much better actor than he gets credit for—occasionally flexing those muscles in Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Uncut Gems—and makes a ton of money selling cheap laughs on Netflix. He’s having his cake and eating it, too. The same can’t be said for some of his best comedian buddies: Rob Schneider is both painfully unfunny and not a very good actor, and while Kevin James isn’t hopeless, he’s always returning to the same material. I usually describe James’s style of comedy as “coastal elite Larry the Cable Guy.” Please spot the lie.

If you watch a Kevin James movie, he’s likely to play a regular dude with moderately ambitious dreams. Consider, unfortunately, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and its even more terrible sequel as a perfect example. The thing that’s supposed to be funny in these movies—but often isn’t—is that James isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to rescue hostages or get the (always conventionally attractive and younger) girl. There’s a lot of physical gags, and low-hanging bits making fun of the actor’s weight. If you’ve seen one Kevin James movie, well, you’ve probably seen too many—and you’ve also seen them all.

So, of course, it was only a matter of time before James was handed a script in which he’s supposed to be a super spy. The result is True Memoirs of an International Assassin, a Netflix movie that probably didn’t get the hype the company hoped for because it was released three days after the 2016 election. (I was definitely looking for escapism after a national nightmare, but who the hell would want to watch a film with a rare 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes?)

James plays Sam Larson, an accountant who moonlights as a wannabe James Patterson, writing pulpy novels that are constantly rejected by publishers because they read like bad Michael Bay scripts. (Even Bay stans would agree that nobody is watching his movies for the dialogue.) The film opens with a clever device: We are shown action scenes that James’s character has written out—he’s projecting himself as the hero of his own story—that let him live out the fantasy of being able to kick bountiful ass. It’s not not enjoyable in a vacuum, especially when Sam writes himself into a corner and then gets blown up by a bazooka:

“Last night I saved a beautiful woman in Tangier,” Sam says, with serious virginal energy, to a man who claims to have worked in the Mossad and is giving him pointers for his latest book. He tells Sam about a legendary operative known as “the Ghost,” who killed 30 high-profile targets and was presumed dead after a helicopter crash, but who some believe survived by jumping out before it crashed. Sam uses “the Ghost” as inspiration to finish his latest novel. It’s summarily rejected by all traditional publishers, but one literary agent agrees to release Sam’s book digitally—this movie is so outdated she says she wants the novel to be the “next Twilight”—with a twist. Unbeknownst to Sam, the agent retitles the book True Memoirs of an International Assassin and files it under nonfiction. Casual and ethical. Sure. (This movie has a really low opinion of literary agents!)

Of course, Sam’s “memoir” gets tens of thousands of digital downloads, he’s interviewed by Katie Couric (he leaves the interview in a panic after realizing the world now thinks he is a legendary assassin and because he’s afraid Couric could expose him as a fraud), and is then kidnapped by freedom fighters from Venezuela who believe he’s actually “the Ghost.” Sam is thrust into a plot by the group’s leader, El Toro (congrats on the paycheck, Andy Garcia) to assassinate the country’s president. It’s hard to blame Sam for being scared out of his mind.

One would assume True Memoirs of an International Assassin would follow the basic formula of a movie that is spiritually adjacent to Netflix’s Sandler Cinematic Universe: go for the cheap laughs, flex a little of that streamer budget with an explosion or two, and call it a day. I can’t, in good conscience, say that’d make this a good movie, but at least that would make it one that knows exactly what it is.

Instead, True Memoirs of an International Assassin is basically what would happen if James Patterson tried making his own Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and lost the plot. The movie is shockingly—unnecessarily—confusing, throwing in [deep breath] a Russian oligarch who wants El Toro assassinated, the Venezuelan president’s top general asking Sam to kill said Russian, and the implication that the CIA rigged the Venezuelan election so they could control the country through a leader that is secretly a miserable man from San Diego. (“Go Padres” is an actual line uttered by this fictional president.) There is, in fact, a whole subplot in which the CIA is surveilling everything Sam gets caught up in, as two operatives place bets on how long he’ll survive the ordeal. Shockingly, one of the CIA characters is played by Rob Riggle, who was undeniably hilarious in 21 Jump Street but literally nothing else.

Anyway, you’ll be shocked to know Sam is aided on his quest by a very attractive DEA agent (Zulay Henao), who refers to this wannabe-author-out-of-water as “Sam and cheese,” “bacon bits,” and “honey baked.” It was around this time I considered opening a bottle of wine at 10 in the morning. Luckily, the two of them didn’t end the film by making out; still, this was unquestionably lame:

So, about the ending: The president, the Russian oligarch, and El Toro are known as the “three kings of Caracas,” and since they all want to eliminate each other, it’s only fitting that all of them die in the movie’s climax. The oligarch is shot and El Toro falls out of a helicopter after being shot; the usual stuff. The truly fucked-up thing is what happens to the president. He tells Sam how much he hates the gig, loathes the Venezuelan food/culture, and how he feels like he is basically a hostage of the CIA. Then he shoots himself in the head. (Sam wants to perform CPR on the man who blew his brains out, proving how he is uniquely unqualified to write spy novels—let alone be an actual spy.) Sam’s unintentional tampering in the country and the president’s suicide leads to riots on the streets; overall this movie gives such an unfavorable view of Venezuela I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix banned it from the country:

True Memoirs of an International Assassin would’ve benefited from embracing the inherent stupidity of being the Kevin James Spy Movie rather than trying, and failing, to punch above its weight. Le Carré for Dummies, it turns out, is a bad idea. There is no shame in being empty-calorie entertainment; you guys are working with the King of Queens, not Daniel Day-Lewis. If he wants to be, True Memoirs of an International Assassin writer-director Jeff Wadlow is a lord of stupid content—he was responsible for Kick-Ass 2, Never Back Down, and Truth or Dare. Are these good movies? Absolutely not. Are these movies I would sit through if I was tipsy and channel surfing? Hell yes!

I don’t know what would happen if Kevin James ever tried a Sandler-esque prestige vehicle: He’s not a terrible actor when he isn’t subjecting himself to fat jokes or physical gags you’ve seen a million times before. Out of morbid curiosity, I’d love to see Uncut James. As for Wadlow? God bless, he cowrote the script for one of the last major theatrical releases before the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the best-worst things I’d seen so far this year: Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot. Keep staying in that lane, king.