From writer John D’Arco, and director Kyle Newman (Fanboys), comes Barely Lethal; a coming-of-age high-school rom-com that’s essentially Mean Girls meets Dark Angel, Agent Cody Banks meets 10 Things I Hate About You, or Spy Kids meets any other generic high-school movie, but the surprising this is, even for those who don’t fit the high-school senior demographic, Barely Lethal is actually kind of fun.
Sure the plot, which sees Hailee Steinfeld’s Agent 83 run away from her home; an orphanage/top-secret facility where young girls with no attachments are trained to become ruthless assassins from toddlers; and attempt to live a normal life under an assumed identity (including settling down, moving in with a normal family, and even attending high-school), is clichéd, predictable, and even a little dull (the paint-by-numbers script doesn’t help in that regard), but it’s given enough sass to work by the performance of its leading lady.
While she may not get to show off her acting chops like she did with True Grit, Hailee looks to be having a ball playing the secret agent turned awkward everyday teen who simply can’t fit in at a regular school, and gets all her ‘research’ from watching the expected high-school movies (10 Things, etc.). She’s always been interesting to watch, and despite the generic taste of the material here she imbibes Agent 83 with an innocent sense of longing and bewilderment which keeps her watchable (even if she’s far from convincing as the all-action heroine).
Hailee’s school-kid co-stars fare less well however; Thomas Mann (Project X) is acceptable as the geeky guy we all know she should be falling for instead of the guitar player, but never anything better than the norm; Dove Cameron plays the foster-sister role like she’s been lifted straight from the Disney Channel (hardly surprising given her Liv and Maddie beginnings); and even the fairly talented Gabriel Basso (who’s shown promise with work on The Big C) has his talents squandered by a poor script which has him playing nothing more than a hollering jock.
Bigger names do provide a boost to the cast; Samuel L. Jackson gives an above average showing for this type of movie (though don’t expect to be falling over yourselves laughing here as his mentor role is nowhere near as amusing as his villainous turn in Kingsman); and Jessica Alba looks she’s having more fun than she has done in a long time (certainly more than with Stretch, and possibly even Sin City 2) playing the all-action bad-girl; but sadly Sophie Turner lets the side down in a big way. Her accent slips, her character’s a chore to watch (a paper-thin jealous type whose sole ambition in life is to take what Agent 83 has), and a fairly wooden and whiney performance reminds you too much of Sansa Stark (her character in Game of Thrones), but lacking any of the depth both her character and portrayal provide on HBO.
Still, despite it’s flaws; average at best acting, a passable (though far from outstanding) paint-by-numbers script, iffy direction, and badly handled action; there is fun to be had with Barely Lethal. It’s always fun watching someone out of their element, so Agent 83’s attempts at fitting in prove amusing (especially the way she relies on classic movie tropes to get her through – something which at least provides a degree of self-awareness), the well-known cast members prove to be a hoot to watch, there are a couple of rather funny one-liners Steve-O (yes, he from Jackass) delivers a brilliant cameo, and the soundtrack (including an original opening song) is pretty cool.
It’s an odd choice, to basically do Kingsman backwards (surely normal person to super-secret agent is the more fun way round?), but one which almost works here. It’s bound to appeal to the teen-girl market (who’ll love how awkward and funny Agent 83 is), but sadly won’t stretch too far outside this key age-bracket, as by including so many genres/tropes from different genres (action, spy thriller, revenge movie, high-school film, coming-of-age movie, teen romance) Barely Lethal comes to screens with a lack of identity which will sadly keep it from being judged as anything too far above simply watchable. Even if the cast are fun.
Watch the trailer and, if it looks like you’ll enjoy it, go for the safer VoD option, or better yet wait for it to hit your local DVD bargain bin.
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