Megan Walsh (Hailee Steinfeld) is a sixteen year-old high-schooler with a difference. She may look like a normal teenager, and like most normal teenagers in public schools, she wants to fit in. But there’s something that separates her from the others; she’s trained to kill.
In the new teenage action-comedy Barely Lethal, Megan is an assassin who has done virtually nothing since birth other than learn how to fight, kick, stab, and kill. Like several other orphaned girls with nowhere else to go, Megan was raised in a top secret special ops facility, trained to execute deadly operations with precision. As she explains about her schooling in an introductory voice-over, “It turned little girls into killing machines.” Her no-nonsense, drill instructor-like tutor, the demanding and appropriately named Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson) puts it in a more succinct manner. “It’s all about putting holes in your subject.”
During training, Megan proves to be the best of the best. Her instincts are exact and her ability is exemplary. The facility has done a superb job. There’s just one problem: Megan yearns to be a normal teenager and do what normal teenagers do; go to high-school, attend the prom, date some guy and maybe get on the cheerleading squad; anything, as long as it has nothing to do with killing people. So she fakes her own death, disappears, and turns up as a Canadian visitor on a high-school foreign exchange student program.
Ordinarily, by the age of sixteen, any girl who had gone through a lifetime of being trained to follow orders without question since birth and given license to kill while void of emotional attachments would in reality be a total nut case; a humorless sociopath with no friends and nothing resembling social skills. Yet, this is a teenage, high-school, fish-out-of-water comedy, and Megan desperately wants to fit in, so naturally, she’s an ever-smiling, bright and up beat girl who hides her ability to break bones while doing her best to be as helpful as possible. Until her past catches up with her.
Barely Lethal misfires as much as the porn-suggesting pun. Megan, and the other girls from the facility are hardly barely lethal, they’re deadly, and it’s this male fantasy of watching chicks acting tough that gives the film a somewhat uncomfortable dark edge. The fact that they’re all under-aged makes things even more awkward. Ever wondered what is it is about the Japanese culture where grown men openly collect and drool over graphic novels depicting innocent looking, saucer-eyed, young school girls dressed in extra short plaid mini-skirts? The western male has a similar fantasy, but being prone towards the violent as entertainment, it’s the whimsy of watching chicks with guns, snapping necks and kicking all kinds of butt. Think back to Kick-Ass. What character among all those colorful characters stood out the most? The lethal Hit Girl. Guys drooled over the foul-mouthed twelve year-old as she violently dispatched bad guys with a smile, whether they admit or not. Megan is Barely Lethal’s slightly older Hit Girl without the expletives. So, with that in mind, who is Barely Lethal really aimed it? Teenage girls? I don’t think so.
Yet the film wants it both ways. The high-school scenes are surprisingly innocent, reminiscent of any colorfully lit, teenage comedy and even occasionally funny. One scene of a conversation between two secret agents held in the secrecy of a bathroom during a house party concludes with a genuinely funny and unexpected punch line. A short video of Megan karate kicking a couple of high-school pranksters goes viral and becomes the lead in Samuel Jackson’s hunt to locate his missing student. “Where did you find me?” asks Megan. “Same place I learned to slice a piece of pineapple,” Jackson replies. “You Tube.”
The cast of Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson and bad girl Jessica Alba is good, plus there’s a nice comedic turn from Rachel Harris as the single-parent mom who takes the upbeat foreign-exchange student under her roof. Yet, despite odd moments of humor that actually work, the overall feel is of a concept comedy built on a really icky base, greenlit, perhaps, by a studio exec who let a certain fantasy get the better of him.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 100 Minutes overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)