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This American Assassin is operating under bad intel.

American Unhinged

The assassin blends in
The assassin blends in

The story is timely enough. It involves terror cells, attacks on innocent civilians, a U.S. homegrown terrorist and an American on a mission of retribution against Muslim extremists.

It all starts with Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, The Maze Runner) proposing to his knock-out girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega, Provenance), in Ibiza. The romance is short-lived. After she accepts, he goes to grab some celebratory drinks. Then terrorists destroy their bliss.

Everything changes for Mitch after he witnesses his new fiancé getting shot to death right in front of his eyes.

So much for his graduate studies at Brown. This guy’s turned too hard core for even his MMA trainer. Mitch never met a rule that wasn’t meant to be broken and that includes obliterating everybody else’s targets at the shooting range.

And Mitch’s own efforts to exact revenge by becoming fluent in Arabic and the Koran in order to infiltrate terror networks has caught the attention of the CIA. Enter his handler-in-waiting, Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, Now You See Me 2), who thinks it’s a good idea to team lone wolf Mitch with Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, Batman). Stan’s an ex-Navy SEAL and, theoretically, the one man on Earth who can break Mitch of his counterproductive behaviors.

American Ghost

As Irene puts it, you can spot the boot camp in the typical soldier from a mile away. Not so with Mitch. He comes from a different place; he can blend in, disappear. At least, that is, if he learns to put his emotions in check.

Never let it get personal, Stan advises.

Mitch is a good character. He has a reasonably compelling back story and loads of personal ambition. Stan’s also a good character. O’Brien and Keaton are fine in their roles, although maybe it’s a little hard to picture Keaton as a Navy SEAL. Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), for that matter, is also in fine form as “Ghost,” the American traitor.

So what’s the problem with American Assassin?

Even though core elements seem ripped from recent headlines, it’s uninspired. So much of it feels old hat. The action falls flat when it should make the pulse pound and the synapses fire.

Where’s the tension? Where’s the sense of dread? Where’s the stomach-churning angst over an American gone bad and helping the terrorist cause?

All of that is MIA, replaced with rote action sequences and standard-issue fight scenes.

There’s no relatable emotional pull behind any of it. It’s a flat, detached espionage adventure yarn without a unique personality, signature or hook to set it apart from all the others.

And, in comparison to the exquisite action set pieces of John Wick and Atomic Blonde (or even Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), the fisticuffs here are nothing new.

American Standard

It’s disappointing to walk away from this potential franchise-starter without a shred of excitement. The source material is the 11th book in a series of Mitch Rapp novels by Vince Flynn; this installment was originally published in 2010 and Flynn died of prostate cancer in 2013. It took eleven books before Flynn got around to telling this back story and the movie doesn’t do the collective work justice.

It takes only a quick perusal of the novel American Assassin to appreciate how the movie version missed the mark in its attempt to bring the storyline into more current events.

That terror attack in which Mitch loses his fiancé? In the book, she was one of the 270 victims in the Lockerbie incident back in 1988. The movie trades that in for the beach massacre in the modern day, attempting to pile on the emotional impact by having Mitch watch her die. Aside from Mitch’s loss, there’s no sense the world was shaken by such a horrendous act of terror. It’s sloppy. It’s stilted in context. It’s drained of resonance.

And that sloppiness is the crux of the movie’s failure.

Scenes of mass panic are distracting in their staging. From a semi-crowded café comes a swarm of mass humanity, all moving in one direction. On cue. Running to the exact point where the choreographer told them to go.

Perhaps the underlying problem is director Michael Cuesta has a résumé built largely on TV episodes — including Homeland, Dexter, Elementary, Six Feet Under — and he seems to struggle with the transition to feature-length pacing and big-screen optics.

The movie’s a hard worker, like most good Americans. Trouble is, it should’ve worked smarter.