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‘American Assassin’ and Other Tired Ideas (Movie Review)

American Assassin is a film so aggressively mediocre that it actually comes off worse as a result. Based off one of the many novels from a series by Vince Flynn, it somehow took four screenwriters to put together this story of a black ops recruit with attitude. Not that the actors involved are not game to play along, but a scene chewing Michael Keaton only goes so far in a film that comes up lacking in the way of action filmmaking and uses phrases like “stolen Russian plutonium” to supposedly generate excitement. This movie is a relic from another era of action films, and the self-seriousness only hurts this initial entry in what could amount to a terrifically bland series of films, given the types of stories being told.

Dylan O’Brien stars as Mitch Rapp, an orphaned college dropout who had plenty of potential and was seemingly going to get that back until random terrorists killed his fiancé and left him for dead on a beach in Thailand. 18 months later, Mitch finds himself training to get revenge, and despite his successful efforts to get close to some big bad terrorists, he is brought in by the CIA Deputy Director (Sanaa Lathan) to join a black ops team. This team is led by Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Keaton), who trains Mitch to be an efficient and ruthless assassin working for the good guys, of course. Things get complicated when Mitch and Hurley get caught up on a mission to take down one of Hurley’s former protégés known as “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch).

I was surprised to learn American Assassin is the 11th book in Flynn’s novel series, as it was a prequel to all that came before it. The idea is to see O’Brien grow up with this role, which is always an ambitious prospect. On paper, it makes sense, even if it follows a pattern of young, white male actors suddenly thrust upon audiences who are expected to accept a new star such as this because…well, that’s just how it is. O’Brien is certainly talented (he’s solid in those Maze Runner films, regardless of how they stand up as a whole), but thanks to the utterly trite story seen in this movie, I couldn’t help but see a more interesting metaphor about the film industry emerge.

The casting is so on point in American Assassin. O’Brien is the new young upstart coming into a world of excitement. He’s trained by Keaton, a veteran actor who was formerly someone huge, with the appearance of further potential thanks to Batman (among other roles). That settled down, but he’s now a respected character actor. Meanwhile, Kitsch is here as the villain. Here’s an actor who was also once a young upstart given a chance to be huge (John Carter, Battleship, Oliver Stone’s Savages all in one year, following a successful run on a popular TV series). Now he’s slightly older and fighting back against the actor who set a path in front of him and the kid who’s taking his place. One can even see co-star Scott Adkins (an actor hugely popular in the direct-to-video world) as one not ready for primetime, so he slums in this supporting part.

As that bit of free associative writing was the most joy I got out of American Assassin, I guess kudos goes to casting director Elaine Grainger for (inadvertently or not) helping secure a cast that ensured a level of subtext amidst the generic-looking terrorists and government employees around them. It also speaks to how little this film seemed to matter, despite having the threat of said stolen plutonium and even a red digital countdown clock to intensify the climax further.

As opposed to something more nuanced (like a cerebral Jack Ryan story) or high concept (super spy Jason Bourne has amnesia), this is an action movie that doesn’t even take some of the basic steps to build interesting twists into the narrative. Instead, it’s the sort of predictable action movie where major female deaths serve as a reason to drive the hero, and selfish reasons provide the bland villain with motive. And don’t worry, there’s also training montages and quippy one-liners to counterbalance the shallow handle on post-9/11 politics.

Director Michael Cuesta (Kill The Messenger) brings nothing of much interest to the table. The film has all the sort of qualities you are used to seeing in modern action thrillers (rapid editing and close-ups), with the addition of a bit more blood thanks to the R-rating, which is largely used to let the characters scream swears at each other. Again, I’m all for seeing Keaton go off the rails a bit, but I’m also wondering what he’s doing here. He’s having fun (a torture scene clearly suggests as much), but ideally, this straightforward action franchise play also gives him time to balance working on more complex projects.

American Assassin joins films like Traitor, Abduction and other generically-titled films that are entirely forgettable. It may be a part of a large book series, but this is no Jack Reacher as far as an initial film with some creative direction and an actual marquee name. American Assassin is more of a violent TV pilot that rehashes everything you’ve seen before than a movie that should be heralded as the next big action franchise. As it stands, I appreciated finding something else to think about regarding the cast, but this explosive thriller had little of value to begin with.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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