Sunday, August 27, 2017

8 Assassins: From Morocco with Love

You have to start somewhere and this is very definitely someplace: Morocco. The nation’s first domestically produced action movie and it isn’t bad, but it might have appealed more to Sir Richard Burton the explorer than the actor. Shrewdly, director-co-screenwriter Saïd C. Naciri takes full advantage of his exotic locales in 8 Assassins (a.k.a. Kanyamakan, trailer here), which opens a brief four-day theatrical run tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Amir would be the first to say he is a thief, not a hero. He isn’t even a particularly honorable one. When we meet him, he is double-crossing his accomplices during a back robber. Technically, he is the one holding the bag (full of cash). They will chase him into the desert in hopes of expressing their personal disappointment, until Amir reaches the walled Kasbah ruled by the evil Sharkan. This is definitely an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation for Amir, who is stripped of his loot and thrown into the dungeon, but he still fares better than his soon-to-be late colleagues.

Inadvertently, Amir finds himself in the middle of a clan power struggle, when the prisoner in the cell next to his reveals he is Shahin, the rightful chief, long thought to be dead. Sharkan was his presumed successor, but the old man realized his true nature before passing on the secret of the tribe’s storied treasure. During a chaotic escape attempt, Amir will subsequently meet Shahin’s daughter Aida, who has been aiding the tribe’s nomadic rebels, even though she is betrothed to Sharkan. She has hired two assassins to take out the usurper, but neither has arrived yet, so she expects Amir to rally to the cause in their place. Eventually, both hired guns will turn up. While the second is only good for comic relief, the firepower and know-how Cassius brings will be helpful for storming the Kasbah.

So right now, you’re probably wondering about the other six assassins. Good question. Even if you count Amir and Sharkan as assassins (which they aren’t), we are still four hired killers short. Your guess is as good as mine, but if you’re inflating the number of assassins in your title, why stop at eight?

It is a mystery alright—a completely unnecessary one. Maybe you have to grade a bit on a curve, but 8 Assassins—let’s call it Kanyamakan—is rather enjoyable as gritty, low-budget action throw-down. Frankly, it was a mistake to dub Kanyamakan, because the natural audience for it is used to watching subtitled Hong Kong action movies. Regardless, Naciri recruited a number of stunt performers for his cast, all of whom are clearly comfortable with shooting, fighting, and pyrotechnics. The Kasbah is wildly cinematic and all the tribal elements add an intriguing dimension.

Mohamed Elachi has the action chops and a decent roguish anti-hero screen presence as Amir. Sarah Kazemy, co-star of the rather daring Persian lesbian drama Circumstance, is indeed quite striking as Aida. As Cassius, Diouc Koma attacks his scenes with admirable gusto, even though his character doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps most notable among the supporting ensemble is Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, who generated controversy when he portrayed Satan in the History Channel’s Bible miniseries, because some commentators thought he looked Obama. In Kanyamakan, he doesn’t remotely resemble Obama, or, as far as we know, Satan, but plays Shahin with all kinds of grizzled dignity. However, Taken franchise veteran Affif Ben Badra makes the strongest impression radiating villainous intensity as Sharkan.

In the West, even supposedly “indie” films probably spend more on catering than Naciri probably had for his entire budget. Yet, if you can forgive a few rough patches, you will inevitably find yourself digging its energy and commitment. It is not an overstatement to call it a Moroccan El Mariachi. Plus, it is the first film since Hitchcock’s second The Man Who Knew Too Much to film in Marfakesh’s Jemaa el Fnaa, the old city market square. Recommended for those who appreciate underdog action movies, 8 Assassins opens tomorrow (8/28) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Music Hall, with a VOD release to follow shortly after.