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AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) review

September 14, 2017

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written by: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz
produced by: Nick Wheeler and Lorenzo di Bonaventura 
directed by: Michael Cuesta
rated: R (Strong violence throughout, some torture, language and brief nudity) 
runtime: 111 min.
U.S. release date: September 15, 2017

 

Based on the best-selling series of books by Vince Flynn, “American Assassin” finds CBS Films, Lionsgate Films, and producers Nick Wheeler and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, hoping to kick off a movie franchise revolving around the covert adventures of Mitch Rapp, a secret counter-terrorist operative for the CIA. They’ve cast a young hunky guy in the titular role and are hoping that director Michael Cuesta (who’s had his hand in television since 2014’s “Kill the Messenger”) can kick off a series. It’s doubtful fans of the novels have been clamoring for a movie transition and at this point, with so many of these spy thriller movies getting greenlit with interchangeable plots, the only thing about them I look forward to is to find some actor in these movies stand out amidst the stereotypical roles. So, on that note, I’d like to thank Michael Keaton for bringing some enjoyment to this by-the-numbers story.

A devastating personal loss opens the movie, turning naive twentysomething Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) into a hardened self-trained one-man army eighteen months later. He’s hidden his boyish looks with a full-grown terrorist beard in order to infiltrate and take out a terrorist cell in Tripoli. His interaction and activity with the disciples of Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed) have captured the attention of CIA Deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, who can currently be seen on a television show called “Shots Fired”), who in turn sends a strike force upon a location where Rapp has gotten himself apprehended by those he has studied for so long. Rapp is taken back to the States against his will and informs Kennedy he could’ve handled himself just fine.

 

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Rapp’s temperamental arrogance seems to be just what Kennedy is looking for since she then drops the kid off with ex-Navy SEAL instructor Stan Hurley (Keaton, thankfully being full-on Keaton), a Persian Gulf vet who runs an elite boot camp in Roanoke Valley, Virginia, where he turns the right candidate into ruthless, emotion-free warriors (which is a difference from spies, but whatever – the movie isn’t called “American Spy”). Kennedy is keeping an eye on Rapp and an eye on possible intelligence that may link certain Middle Eastern leaders to the handling of a nuclear weapon – it could be General Rostami (Joseph Long) or Minister Behurz (Navid Negahblam) – but regardless, she’s counting on Rapp being able and ready to be sent on a mission to deal with whatever information they receive.

Meanwhile, Hurley (who could’ve been appropriately named Surley) is certain the cocky Rapp isn’t ready, seeing how he’s clearly too emotional to take orders and will without a doubt be more of a liability than a reliable asset in the field. Rapp reminds him of a former prodigy of his (a previous American Assassin, if you will), one who now goes by the name of Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, who would’ve played the Rapp role ten years ago), someone who now brokers plutonium deals in Poland. Inevitably, Kennedy orders a reluctant Hurley to take Rapp on a mission to Romania and Italy, which connects them to an operative named Annika (Shiva Negar) and they soon learn that it is indeed Ghost that they must take down. Of course, Rapp disregards orders, taking his own initiative and is off to rescue Hurley, save Annika, face off against Ghost, and dump a nuke in the Mediterranean Sea just out of reach of a U.S. naval fleet. In the end, Rapp’s brash impulsiveness will be deemed as heroism and the elevator doors (literally) will close in anticipation for the next movie.

 

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Financially, “American Assassin” could do well, since assassins are blowing up the box office lately, what with the success of the critically-panned “The Hitman’s Bodyguard”. Yet, the one way I can always tell that a movie I’m kind of annoyed with or bored by will be a hit with moviegoers is when I hear one thing during a screening…clapping.

Not from fellow critics, mind you, but the rest the local movie-going populace the studio’s publicists fill the rest of the theater with. They especially hooted and hollered and clapped when an antagonist violently received the business end of a knife to his throat (something Hurley demonstrated to Rapp during his training, which we knew would come to play later on), resulting in the victim going bug-eyed and gurgling blood. They also clapped during the movie’s conclusion, when our young stud hero wound up predictably saving a fleet of Navy vessels from nuclear annihilation. Why they clap I’ll never know. No one involved in the production of this movie was there to hear their claps. It’s just so everyone else around them can audibly comprehend that some nearby clappers are fans of what is transpiring on screen.

I heard the same thing in the theater as I watched Halle Berry’s recent “Kidnap” and that debacle  made $3.7 million on its first day (including $500,000 from Thursday previews) and $10 million over the opening weekend, finishing 5th at the box office. I’m sure “American Assassin” will do something along those lines – and hey, if it earns a ton of dough in China, maybe we will see what happens when those elevator doors open. It worked for Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy”.

It should actually come as no surprise that veteran producer di Bonaventura is involved in this, considering he was involved in attempting to resuscitate the Jack Ryan movies in 2014 and he produced a recently released CIA action thriller “Unlocked” that likely no one saw. He also had a hand in the aforementioned “Kidnap” and is just the kind of guy who gets involved in churning out recycled action flicks like this.

These spy movies, especially of the counter terrorism variety, have increased since the hit television series “24”, which premiered in early November 2001. No need to wonder why that show became so popular. After that, spies thrillers have run rampant. We had the “Bourne” movies kick off the year after and this genre has since mostly skewered for younger spies in an effort to ensure longevity for a franchise and draw in a younger audience.

 

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That’s what’s happened in the process of adapting Mitch Rapp for the big-screen and fans of the series will balk just as much as they questioned the decision to have the diminutive Tom Cruise portraying a tall Jack Reacher. In most of the sixteen Mitch Rapp novels, he’s portrayed as middle-aged, known for his impulsive actions and an aggressive willingness to disobey orders and take matters into his own hands. I think I would’ve preferred a middle-aged protagonist.

Nothing against Dylan O’Brien, I liked him just fine in the “Maze Runner” movies and applaud his physical recovery after severely injuring himself in second sequel of that series, but other than the executing the appropriate physicality required for the role, O’Brien just didn’t do much for me here. It could be because we’re essentially getting an origin movie, where Mitch Rapp isn’t fully-developed, but it could also be the same problem that the Jack Reacher movies had – it’s a challenge to communicate an analytical mind in the same way it is described in the novels.

There’s really no way of telling what’s going on with Rapp internally, especially since O’Brien is busy alternating his expressions from brooding to grimacing to sulking.  There’s got to be more to a character than just revenge. It helps to have some semblance of a sense of humor or charm, or at least an acknowledgement of or attempt at either of those.

There’s a scene where O’Brien’s Rapp and Negar’s Annika are sitting in an outdoor Italian cafe, surveilling some bad guys. She seems relaxed and content as she tells a nearby patron that she and Rapp are newlyweds. She turns to him and smiles, reiterating to Rapp that they are to appear married – and what does Rapp do? He just sits there staring at the bad guys. He may have trained himself, he may have even learned a few things from Hurley, but why would he not go along and look the part of a loving husband? Is the script to blame for that or is O’Brien? I dunno, but does it show how limited Rapp is in the field or how unconvincing O’Brien can be at times. Again, it could be because he’s still relatively green, but she’s left cold and the scene simply falls flat.

The only times my attention perked up during “American Assassin” was when Keaton was on the screen. Kitsch has a pretty convincing presence as well, but Keaton’s presence is pure gold.  His introduction, when Rapp arrives at Hurley’s compound, is the first time the movie showed a pulse. Keaton’s intensity increases as the story unfolds and is an overall standout. With his pursed lipse and erect stance, he reminded me of his Bruce Wayne, “You wanna go nuts? Let’s go nuts!”, line cranked up to eleven. His scenes with Kitsch are pretty great too, specifically when Hurley is strung up and being tortured by Ghost. This is where Keaton reaches “achievement unlocked” mode, showing no backing down even when Kitsch takes pliers to his fingernails.

So, while there are a couple good supporting performances in “American Assassin”, what wounds the movie overall is its screenplay. Not that I expected much depth from such a movie, but when it’s revealed that Kitsch’s Ghost is emotionally and physically scarred from having “served his country”, the movie could’ve been a very interesting study of one angry American (Rapp) going up against another angry American (Ghost). It’s never a good thing when you see a film’s unmet potential during its third act.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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