Barely Lethal, in which a teenage assassin Megan Walsh (Hailee Steinfeld) leaves behind her boss and mentor (Samuel L. Jackson) to join high school, is the kind of premise that could be great. It draws from so many successful films – Mean Girls, Grosse Point Blank, Spy Kids, Sky High – but ends up feeling most like the Hit Girl subplot from Kick Ass 2, a modern teenage girl’s high school experience as imagined and written by middle-aged men. For example: a good chunk of the film is given over to a classic love triangle where Megan is torn between the school’s rock star Cash (Toby Sebastian) and the nerdy sidekick Roger (Thomas Mann). Megan persuades Roger to come to a party where he sees her kissing Cash. He’s expressed no romantic interest in her, and she hasn’t in him, but he’s upset and then later she has to apologise to him. Why? It’s either some serious sexism, that two teenagers of the opposite gender can’t be friends, or (more likely) the film’s taking a convenient shortcut, letting our knowledge of high school films fill in the gaps.
Megan’s only experience of high schools has come from movies and TV and there’s potential for some funny dissonance there, a subversion of the genre’s tropes; but because the high school in this film is such a “movie high school”, she fits right in. The same with the spy concept, which is horrific on paper. Samuel L. Jackson’s character takes orphans and trains them their entire life to be good assassins. Yet, in chasing a younger audience perhaps, the actual implications of this dark idea are shied away from. A few awkward class experiences aside, Megan is fairly well-adjusted and has never killed someone. The title isn’t just a cute pun: all the violence is bloodless and there’s no chance anyone will die. What’s more disappointing is that the climax pits all the women against each other, none of them realising that the villain (Jessica Alba) is actually right, that the orphan assassin programme should be stopped.
Hailee Steinfeld though is an excellent actress though, and her charisma manages to squeeze jokes out of the material where there are none. This may not live up to the promise as an actress she showed in True Grit, but there’s still plenty of time. Likewise Thomas Mann, recently in the Sundance break-out hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. One of their running jokes is making puns that, coming out of most actors’ mouths, would be painfully cute; here it’s sincere. Samuel L. Jackson is fascinating if only because stardom hasn’t changed his work ethic one bit. Between Avengers films, Tarantino films, the latest Spike Lee joint, he can be regularly seen slumming it in weird B movies. His performance here is maybe half and half. You get the sense that he doesn’t totally understand the non sequiteurs his character spouts, but then again the biggest laugh of the film is his (it involves fake facial hair). MVP of the supporting cast has to be Rob Huebel as Roger’s Dad, who has a higher hit ratio in terms of laughs than the rest of the film.
Barely Lethal is out on the 28th August 2015 in cinemas and on VOD.