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Review : American Assassin

American Assassin had all the great potential of a book-to-film adaptation, but completely missed its mark. While this feels like it’s a case of the book is better than the film, American Assassin is still a good watch, even if it is about blowing hot air up the USA’s behind.

Having said that, there are many great things about this film that outweighs the poor story line. That statement is in itself ironic since it started with a book. The performances were stunning, lead by the completely underrated Dylan O’Brien. It also has the delicate undertone about the future of war and the necessity to work together to combat it and not use it for personal gain.

Meet Mitch Rapp played by Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner, Teen Wolf, Deepwater Horizon) a young man in his early 20s in love and proposing to his girlfriend on a Spanish beach. As he Rapp goes to get some strong but not too strong cocktails to celebrate, a group of Muslim terrorists open fire upon the unsuspecting victims along the beach. Rapp’s now Fiancé is one of them.

We jump ahead to find Rapp bearded and buff as he trains for his meeting with Al-Munsur’s cell and take them down from the inside. Unbeknownst to Rapp, he’s being followed by the CIA and leads them right to the cell. While Rapp didn’t get his chance to kill the leader himself the CIA took care of the cell.

Rapp is in a great deal of trouble but manages to capture the eye of the CIA Deputy Director and is given an ultimatum, work with them or get locked up. He takes the better option and is sent off for training in the middle of nowhere. Rapp and a small group of other trainees learn how to fight and then fight each other in what is basically the backyard of an old Navy Seal, Stan Hurly played by Michael Keaton (Batman, Birdman, Spider-Man).

Despite his excellent skill and determination Rapp struggles to follow through with orders, yet he’s sent on a mission, which ends up getting himself and his team in a world of trouble. Not only does an old recruit with a vengeance for Hurly turn up but his local counterpart, Annika, ends up being a traitor. All in all Rapp saves the day and gets a pat on the back. Pretty good for a self trained brat.

A number of Directors have been attached to the film in its pre-production. There were also a number of writers having a go to adapt the book to film. Michael Cuesta finally was locked in in 2016 to direct. While Cuesta’s background is mostly in television series with the likes of Dexter, Billions, Homeland and Six Feet Under he manages to do one thing really well with the film and that is get up and close with the actors so you can feel the emotion. Something of which is usually felt in television. But where Cuesta fails is in his inability to connect the story together to give it substance and emotion rather than banking on the actors to fill the gaps.

There were some fantastic action scenes, mostly in the form of fight scenes with O’Brien. They are tightly choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes that seem overly brutal even for a training scenario. While the film lacks any major stand out scenes there the final crescendo in the form of an underwater explosion is mostly well done. It’s hard to say it could be better as this isn’t something that’s really ever been witnessed.

The standout performance easily goes to the lead man Dylan O’Brien who despite this being his first film back since his horrible onset accident in The Maze Runner outshines everyone in a scene with him. There are a number of scenes where you are completely compelled by O’Brien. The major stand out is when he is sitting on the couch watching the live feed of a terrorist. His local CIA counterpart starts to tell him she understands how she feels as she too has lost family. O’Brien’s face is filled with such, hate, confusion, loss and love that you can’t help but feel under his spell.

To put it simply, it had all the right pieces, but had nothing to pull them together. The good thing is there are a number of books to adapt so it still has time to figure all that out. Think of this as a young and not as intense Jason Bourne film. It’s an interesting take of the theme where the new CIA recruit scores off the charts. It is however enjoyable watching, but if you are looking for good cinema or a great story, this isn’t it. That’s not to say the next one won’t deliver.

Review by Jay Cook

Criterion 1
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