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Movie Review: ‘American Assassin’ Misses the Mark

The opening scene of American Assassin is one too familiar in action-thrillers. The hunky Mitch (Dylan O’Brien) has just proposed to his girlfriend at the beach while filming it for all the world to see. She says yes, a surrounding crowd claps and he goes to the outdoor bar to grab her a drink.

You don’t have to be a genius to know something horrible is going to happen to this girl. I was prepared to watch her die in slow motion. I was not, however, prepared for that death to be part of a gruesome attack on the beach by gun-toting Muslim terrorists. That’s not fair. How can I laugh at the cliche and expected death when it comes slathered in blood, bullets and innocent people being gunned down ruthlessly?

American Assassin Movie Review MovieSpoon.com
Dylan O’Brien is out for revenge in ‘American Assassin.’

A major flaw with a thriller such as this is that it takes a cue from current events more than it should. It’s bad enough that the beach massacre reminds me of the many Muslim terror attacks with its gruesome and graphic violence, but it’s even worse to follow that up with a terrorist recruitment video, complete with rock music and footage of what looks like real deaths in the Middle East. This is where American Assassin lost me. Unless there is some meditation on how inhumane all this hatred and war has made the world, I’m not interested in the film’s central plot of revenge and nukes. Those silly and overused writing devices don’t deserve such reality.

The film seems to be on a mission to make its world as ugly, cynical and mean-spirited as possible. When we catch up with Mitch 18 months later, he’s overcome with fury to avenge his fiancee. He works out at a gym to strengthen himself, but he’s too aggressive with his trainers and is kicked out. He throws knives in his apartment, angering the landlord. He’s also trying to infiltrate a Muslim terrorist group so he can join them and then kill their leader. The CIA doesn’t like that, but he still leads the organization to a terrorist so they figure they could maybe use him. After all, they’ve run tests on him and they’re off the charts. I’m assuming these tests included how muscular he looks with his shirt off and how good he looks holding a gun.

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Michael Keaton in the generic action poster.

He is trained to be an operative by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a Cold War veteran that only teaches the best of the best CIA agents. Hurley’s training program is entirely combat oriented. He teaches knife-killing techniques by handing a knife to Mitch, instructing him to kill his instructor. He’ll awaken his troops with a gun fired wildly into the air, asking why nobody was on watch and declaring everyone now dead. They’ll later play a virtual reality simulation of shooting terrorists out of a crowd, a sharp electric charge coursing through their bodies if they get shot before they shoot first. I’m seeing an awful lot of combat here and not a whole lot of secrecy. I dunno, something about working for the CIA makes me think these guys should know more than where to stick a knife and who to shoot.

Mitch and Hurley, as well as some other operatives to act as terrorist fodder, are on a mission in Rome to stop some terrorists from making a nuke. Hurley tells Mitch an important aspect of the job is not to make it personal. Of course, the mission will become personal and Mitch will disobey orders to chase after leads. Hurley will also let the mission get personal when his former student has gone rogue. Even the supporting Turkish agent of Annika (Shiva Negar) also has a personal dog in this fight.

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By Hurley’s logic, these are the worst CIA operatives for the job. Don’t pull that building character nonsense on me to justify their stupidity. There is no character here. Not when our leads are constantly talking about the mission, condescendingly arguing with each other or growling in expletives at the terrorists. There’s a scene where Keaton eats off the ear of a terrorist holding him hostage, smiling with blood on his teeth and snarling like a dog. This is just one of many opportune times to showcase him as a deeply flawed man with severe psychological problems. But, no, he’s just a quirky old coot.

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