This well-paced spy thriller, starring Dylan O’Brien and Michael Keaton, lacks originality. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
With Jason Bourne on indefinite hiatus and James Bond somewhere off in the distance waiting to reappear, the time is ripe for someone to step into their superspy/assassin shoes. The makers of “American Assassin” clearly hope that person will be Mitch Rapp, star of a series of best-selling espionage thrillers originated by the late novelist Vince Flynn.
With Dylan O’Brien (“The Maze Runner,” “Deepwater Horizon”) in the lead role, “American Assassin” boasts all the familiar elements: bloodthirsty terrorists, high-speed chases, mass quantities of gunplay, a stolen nuke and exotic foreign locations. Trouble is, all that adds up to something that’s a little too familiar.
Director Michael Cuesta and a platoon of credited screenwriters have dutifully checked all the usual spy-thriller boxes but bring nothing new to the party. The picture istautly paced and a satisfying ride as such things go, but there isn’t a smidgen of originality in it.
Movie Review ★★½
‘American Assassin,’ with Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch. Directed by Michael Cuesta, from a screenplay by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. 112 minutes. Rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language and brief nudity. Several theaters.
Rapp’s motivation is simple: His girlfriend died in a jihadist massacre at a Spanish resort, so he wants to kill every last terrorist he can track down. “I like your agenda,” a CIA higher-up (Sanaa Lathan) tells him, and so recruits this self-taught marksman, martial artist and fluent Arabic speaker for a super-duper-secret assassination squad run by a gimlet-eyed special ops warrior played by Michael Keaton.
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The kid has skills but also a problem obeying orders. Consequently, Keaton’s character spends an awful lot of time scolding him for his rebellious ways and repeatedly threatening to boot him from the program. Which, of course, he doesn’t because the lad’s freelancing gets results, which is to say body counts.
Keaton — experiencing something of a career renaissance with memorable performances in “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” — is convincing in the tough-guy role, but there’s a gleam of amusement behind his character’s steely glare that hints he knows all this huggermugger is faintly ridiculous. But hey, he’s having fun with it.
O’Brien is grimly focused as Rapp, but there isn’t a lot of electricity in his performance. He gets the job done, but he’s no Matt Damon or Daniel Craig. Their spy-guy shoes remain unfilled.