Movie review: American Assassin

An espionage film based on a best seller offers some questionable politics

American Assassin (Americký zabiják)
Directed by Michael Cuesta
With Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Adkins, Shiva Negar, Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet

Suspiciously simplistic politics, an unbeatable martial arts fan with a grudge and once-big film star who was seen better days. Take these ingredients and cook until half-baked. The B-movie thriller American Assassin comes out as a result.

The opening sets the stage, with a terrorist attack at a beach resort. Mitch Rapp (payed by Dylan O'Brien) survives, but the event changes his life. He starts to learn mixed martial arts and goes about infiltrating Middle Eastern terrorist cells on his own. Eventually, his activities catch the eye of the CIA's monitoring of communications. They don't know whether to lock him up or recruit him.

The depiction of spy missions is a lot more down and dirty than in James Bond films. Michael Keaton turns up as Stan Hurley a grizzled CIA trainer left over from the Cold War making a special black ops unit of mostly martial arts experts for hand-to-hand combat out in the field. Because martial art is highly effective against assault rifles and bombs.

Veteran actor Keaton is better at dark roles than at comedy, and he is perhaps the film's only highlight. He just helps to show that most of the cast struggles with acting.

Turning up in a small role is David Suchet, best known for his portrayal of Hercule Poirot in 70 episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot, starting in 1989. He also raises the bar for acting, but the rest of the cast fails to live up to the challenge.

There is an attempt to set up a father-son relationship between Hurley and one of his new team members, but the emotion just doesn't come across on the screen. It is one-sided due to the flat acting by the other characters.

The film's questionable politics revolve around Iran and its possible desire to get around the international restrictions on nuclear material. Someone has to be the bad guy in an action film, but American Assassin sort of twists the real international situation to suit its plot. With so much misinformation already in the media, we don't need more coming from an action film.

To fill in the story, there are other terrorists in the film from north Africa, plus arms dealers and other nefarious types. There are very few speaking roles in the entire film for someone of non-European or American background who is not a villain. And none of the villains have any character development. They are cardboard cutouts, with no more personality than the paper targets the CIA team uses for practice. This has been a problem in films for decades now, and American Assassin does nothing to fix it.

Setting aside the flimsy politics, there is some passable action and an evocative doom-filled film score. The action moves around the globe with scenes set in Ibiza, the US, Libya, London, Turkey and Italy.

Unlike in James Bond films, the settings are often rundown, post-industrial settings. There are the requisite shoot outs, martial arts fights and dialogue-heavy torture scenes. These are professionally done, but not really inspired.

As the lead figure, Dylan O'Brien as Mitch Rapp is lackluster. He is supposed to be one of those rebels who disobeys orders but get things done. He comes off a just being cocky and self-centered. Much of the time he risks ruining the mission by his arrogance. The somewhat far-fetched plot doesn't help either, as it hard to take any of what it happening seriously enough to care about the characters.

American Assassin is based on a popular novel by Vince Flynn, The author died in 2013, but his Mitch Rapp character appeared in a series of nine novels and the character is being continued by a new author.

If this is to become a film series, the producers need to up their game.

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