Samuel L. Jackson is accredited as being the highest grossing actor of all time. A remarkable feat, and one that looks glorious on the CV. But also in his back catalogue are several less celebrated movies, those which are unlikely to make many waves in the box office, nor receive great critical acclaim. Following Big Game released earlier in the year comes yet another that falls into that very category, appearing in Kyle Newman’s uninspiring teen comedy, Barely Lethal.
Jackson plays Hardman, who lives up to his namesake as the ruthless head of an agency that strives to turn young girls into deadly, formidable assassins. One of his most impressive, resourceful students is Megan Walsh (Hailee Steinfeld), who he hopes to utilise in his mission to take down the nefarious villain Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba). However Megan wants out, desperately seeking a more normal, teenage lifestyle, and so she fakes her own death and enrols in a student exchange programme, where she’s taken in by single mother Mrs. Larson (Rachael Harris) – much to the disdain of her eldest daughter, Liz (Dove Cameron). But Megan is intent on making things work, despite the fact that at school her quirky and unconventional demeanour makes her rather unpopular, even if she has managed to earn the affections of both Roger (Thomas Mann) and Cash (Toby Sebastian) along the way. She may be a specially trained secret agent, but for Megan, nothing has ever been quite so challenging and daunting as high school.
Barely Lethal takes a playful meta approach that is enhanced by Megan navigating her way around the high school odyssey using classic teen movies as her guide. In many regards, this tongue-in-cheek endeavour shares similarities to that of The DUFF, except it hasn’t quite got the comedic touch, nor charm to put it on the same level. There is a lot to be admired in how strong the female characters are in this title, however – not just as the heroes and villains, but even those who don’t partake in the action, such as Mrs. Larson, who are still strong-willed, independent women.
It’s not quite enough to save this feature from tedium however, offering so little that we haven’t seen before, as the narrative plays out in all too generic fashion. There is also a host of references to classic teen movies, which, while providing some of the more entertaining sequences, serves as a rather unfortunate reminder that this particular feature isn’t quite in the same league.