Well-Made Assassin Cut Above the Usual Action Fare

Timely and smart, Michael Cuesta’s American Assassin proves to be a worthy successor to the Jack Ryan films.  Based on the novel by Vince Flynn, the author’s spy du jour, Mitch Rapp is the star of 16 different political thrillers, so there’s more than enough material to draw from and with Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf, The Maze Runner) turning in a star-making performance in the lead, there’s no reason this couldn’t spin off into a worthwhile series…depending on its box office take of course.

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A Lionsgate Films release.

Drawing from the 2015 terrorist attack in Tunisia, the film opens with Rapp proposing on a sun-kissed beach to his girlfriend (Charlotte Vega) who is soon tragically killed by a group of Jihadists.  18 months pass and our hero’s rage does nothing but rise to a white heat as he trains himself to be a one-man wrecking crew, planning to take out the terrorist cell and its leader responsible for his fiancées death. However, just as he’s about to carry out his plan, he’s intercepted by the CIA who deliver Rapp to Deputy Director Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) who proposes he join her team.  Hothead that he is, he’s reluctant to cross over but eventually he agrees and is turned over to veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), who sands off the kid’s rough edges…or so he thinks.

Once this duo hit the field with their team – their objective is to track down a load of stolen plutonium – Hurley realizes pretty quickly that Rapp is not the kind of agent that follows orders. He’s one of those troublemakers who goes his own way, the type custom-made for movie heroics and the young agent gets more than a few opportunities to show what he’s made of. Three sequences that show Rapp besting his peers in training simulations constructed by Hurley are imaginatively done and well-executed as is a hotel rendezvous gone bad, a well-timed car chase and the film’s conclusion that revolves around the results of a atomic bomb blast at sea.  While these moments aren’t out of the ordinary in films of this sort, Cuesta wisely lets the well-choreographed action play out without trying to muddle things with multiple camera angles and seizure-inducing editing.  These sequences are easy to follow and all the more thrilling because of this approach.

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A Lionsgate Films release.

Credit Keaton for bringing the sort of glint-in-the-eye zeal only he can bring to a role, making his grizzled, battered character simultaneously larger-than-life yet human.  The actor’s obviously having fun and it proves infectious.  Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) is good as well as the film’s villain, a former protégé of Hurley’s who’s out to prove a point in a very big way, while O’Brien proves himself every bit a movie star, dominating the screen when he appears and pulling off the necessary derring-do with a sense of realism that contributes to the movie’s authenticity. 

To be sure, there really isn’t anything fresh at play here but the story unfolds with such a sense of skill and economy that you find yourself engaged with the story and characters despite knowing what to expect.  This may be a by-the-numbers affair, but American Assassin is pulled off with such style and professionalism, I wouldn’t mind seeing another Mitch Rapp adventure hit the big screen.  

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