Friday, September 15, 2017


In a movie as painfully generic as American Assassin I start grasping at even the slightest glint of unexpected originality. Here it happens to be just one line, spoken by Michael Keaton in his role as a grizzled veteran trainer of deep-deep-deep-undercover operatives. He shoves a cell phone image of a suspect at his superior officer (Sanaa Lathan) and intensely inquires, “Does this picture bong a gong for you?” I appreciated all the trouble to think up a new way to say “rings a bell,” if only because there are literally no other scenes in the picture going that extra step. No, this is a movie flatly and drearily running through the standard dull, grim, guys-with-guns, geopolitical muddle thriller. There’s an ambitious hotshot who wants to save the world, a dead girlfriend serving as opening-scene eye candy and then motivation throughout, there’s a prickly mentor relationship, a couple double crosses, a mysterious connection between heroes and villains, thoughtless political hot button referencing (the Iran nuclear deal), gnarly scenes of torture, casual xenophobia, bloody Bourne-again action with a mild Wick twist, and a ticking time bomb finale with a big red glowing countdown clock. There’s not a single surprise to be found, up to and including the surprises. 

The film stars Dylan O’Brien, a welcome sight in his first role after a near-death accident on the set of the as-yet still unfinished third Maze Runner movie. (It’s sad enough he was nearly killed, but that it was for a Maze Runner is even sadder.) Here does what he can with a role that requires nothing more than a smooth face handsomely troubled and a taut athlete’s body wracked with mournful determination. In the opening scene he and his fiancĂ© are caught in a terrorist attack. He survives, but not intact, having seen the love of his life gunned down before him. Now he’s on a one-man counterintelligence revenge operation until the government steps in and pivots him into a top-secret anti-terror death squad. The whole thing is a topsy-turvy militaristic retaliation fantasy, channeling the character’s vengeance into state-sponsored assassination training. Keaton and O’Brien do what they can with the hoary clichĂ©s they’re made to spout, while the rest of the cast fades slowly into the background. It becomes a grey blur out of which flicker a few fleeting moments provoking thought. Taylor Kitsch pops up as the villain, a weirdly small role and a chance to lament how his great-2012-that-wasn’t (with starring turns in the fun, but underrated, likes of John Carter and Savages) reduced him to this. There’s a scene of unseemly torture-approval, as an Iranian double agent is dunked in a tub until the truth is waterboarded out of her. The climax involves the aforementioned time bomb and a whole flotilla of CG battleships. It’s just all so boring and empty and routine.

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