American Assassin

American-Assassin-rev American Assassin  (2017)    Lionsgate/Action-Thriller    RT: 111 minutes    Rated R (strong violence throughout, some torture, language, brief nudity)    Director: Michael Cuesta    Screenplay: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz    Music: Steven Price    Cinematography: Enrique Chediak    Release date: September 15, 2017 (US)    Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Navid Negahban, Joseph Long, Scott Adkins, Charlotte Vega.

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 During TV rerun season, my wife and I like to binge on TV shows we wanted to check out but never got the chance. Right now, we are watching Homeland, the Showtime series starring Claire Danes as a bipolar CIA agent tracking terrorists. It’s a great show! I mention this because one of the series’ producers is Michael Cuesta whose latest film American Assassin covers some of the same territory as Homeland- i.e. the hero works for the CIA and deals with Middle Eastern bad guys. However, this is NOT what I thought of as I watched the movie yesterday morning. Does anybody remember a picture from 1982 called The Amateur? It stars John Savage as a CIA researcher who undergoes training so he can kill the terrorists that murder his wife in the movie’s opening minutes Throw in elements of Black Sunday, Day of the Jackal and the Bourne movies and you get American Assassin.

 american-assassinDylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner) stars as Mitch Rapp, a young man who we first meet on vacation with his girlfriend in Basque, Spain. He proposes to her as they cavort in the ocean and she accepts. Their bliss is short-lived as, just moments later, terrorists open fire on the beachgoers. One of them kills Rapp’s fiancee right in front of him. Eighteen months later, an understandably pissed-off Rapp has tracked down the man responsible for her death by posing as a young Muslim jihadist looking to join his group. He secures a face-to-face meeting with him with the intention of killing him. What he doesn’t know is that he’s been under CIA surveillance for the past six months. He’s just minutes away from vengeance when Special Forces intervenes and does the deed for him.

 This is when American Assassin switches gears and becomes a more routine action flick. After 30 days of questioning and debriefing by the CIA, the deputy director (Lathan, Alien vs. Predator) makes the case to her superiors that Rapp would be put to better use working for them as an off-the-books assassin. He fits the psychological profile. He’s great at what he does but has no respect for authority. He doesn’t obey rules or orders. He’s sent to train under the tutelage of Stan Hurley (Keaton, Spotlight), a tough-as-nails former Navy SEAL who doesn’t much like Rapp’s reckless ways. After a period of training, he gets his first assignment. He’s to aid in the capture of “Ghost” (Kitsch, Lone Survivor), an illegal arms dealer who once worked for Hurley until he went bad. He may be helping a group of Iranian hardliners in the building of a nuclear bomb.

 Of course, it will ultimately be Rapp that takes the lead in the operation. This is standard practice within the action genre. I like American Assassin even if it’s not the movie it claimed to be in the trailer. I went in expecting a revenge action-thriller but the makers dispense this aspect of the plot within the first half-hour. At this point, it becomes a few different things. It’s a mentor-student action movie like Remo Williams or Band of the Hand. It’s a Bourne-like super-spy flick with well-mounted action scenes. It’s a John Frankenheimer-like thriller that imbues the action with geopolitical context. It’s a pretty good mix that happens to work. American Assassin is a solid action flick.

 O’Brien makes a good action hero. He’s a strong silent type with authority issues. He starts out as a morose outsider nearly insane from grief. He also lost both parents in a car accident as a child. After his target of vengeance is eliminated, he transforms into an unstoppable ass-kicking/killing machine with amazing physical agility. Even better is Keaton who’s been making a strong comeback these last few years with great performances in Birdman, Spotlight, The Founder and Spider-Man: Homecoming. He’s just as great here as the macho leatherneck who literally beats the “never let it get personal” lesson into Rapp. He’s just as great as the kind of tough guy that used to occupy the old school action flicks you used to watch in the 80s. Lathan does well with her few scenes as the CIA handler who just wants the job done.

 The action and fight scenes are well done. American Assassin is legitimately exciting. It also has a fair amount of suspense. It does its job well even with all the clichés- e.g. the red digital read-out on the bomb counting down the seconds as the hero tries to disable it. The plot has a couple of twists that you may or may not see coming. The bottom line is that I really enjoyed American Assassin. I love a good action flick. This movie delivers the goods. It’s the kind of movie best enjoyed on the weekend either at a Saturday matinee or a night time show with the guys. For what it is, it’s quite effective.

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