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‘American Assassin’ doesn’t quite kill it

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Action thriller formulaic, but serviceable enough

There’s something to be said for a movie that has no illusions about what it is. These are the movies – usually genre pictures – that promise nothing more than the familiar and formulaic. That SOUNDS like a dig, but you have to take into account the fact that formulas come into being for a reason.

“American Assassin” follows a pretty standard action movie algorithm. There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before, resulting in a movie that is as generally generic as its title. That’s not to say that it’s without entertainment value – it might follow a formula, but it follows that formula pretty well. The end result is a perfectly entertaining piece of popcorn cinema.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, “Deepwater Horizon”) is your standard regular dude gone rogue. After he loses his newly-minted fiancée to a terrorist attack, he devotes his entire life to finding a way to exact his revenge on the men who killed her. He trains himself in various forms of armed and unarmed combat and takes to the internet in an effort to infiltrate the terrorist cell that executed the attack.

His single-minded devotion to his vendetta attracts the attention of the U.S. government – specifically, an organization that sees Mitch as potentially useful toward advancing their own goals. He’s recruited hard by CIA administrator Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, TV’s “Shots Fired”); she views him as a strong candidate for a secret assassin training program named Project Orion.

Mitch is delivered into the Virginia forests, where he lands at the training compound led by elite operative Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”). Hurley does his best to break down Mitch in order to build him back up, despite the younger man’s resistance to authority and commitment to his own personal agenda.

But when a large amount of plutonium disappears and whispers about nuclear bombs start flying, there’s no more time to train. Mitch is thrown into the fire, along with Stan, a rival Orion trainee named Victor (Scott Adkins, “Savage Dog”) and an undercover CIA asset named Annika (Shiva Negar, TV’s “Four in the Morning”).

From there, it’s your standard race against time stuff, with Mitch and company pitted against a mysterious man known only as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, TV’s “True Detective”) whose motives are unclear and who seems somehow connected to the Orion team.

That synopsis almost certainly sounds familiar to you. Change a few names and details and it could be any one of a dozen action films from the past decade. And in many cases, familiarity can breed contempt.

But not in this one.

“American Assassin” doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but it does display a competent understanding of the standard tropes of action cinema. Director Michael Cuesta doesn’t have a ton of movie experience (though he’s got a ton of quality TV stuff on his CV), but he shows himself to be capable in a workmanlike way, turning a fairly basic screenplay (adapted from a Vince Flynn novel of the same name) into roughly two hours of acceptable entertainment.

The action sequences are solid and the location shots are beautiful. There are chases by land, by sea and by air. There’s a ton of gunfire and some hand-to-hand combat and a bunch of explosions. People look sternly at computer screens. The bad guys are pretty clearly the bad guys. Simple, but effective enough.

O’Brien is the de facto lead, but the movie really belongs to Keaton. It’s standard-issue tough guy stuff, but Keaton wears it well. It’s not a try-hard performance; his comfort level hints at a possible future of Neeson-esque old-man action offerings. O’Brien is fine, the kind of blandly handsome leading man that this sort of movie tends to attract. His performance is nothing special; he’ll probably get another couple of shots before either taking off or fading into the periphery. That fade is certainly familiar to Kitsch, who was viewed as a “Next Big Thing” until he had a couple of flops in a row. He’s actually pretty good here, though he’s not given a ton to work with. The rest of the cast is as meh as the placeholder title; they’re OK, but not a one of them is all that memorable.

And really, that’s the essence of “American Assassin.” It’s OK, but not all that memorable. Which is perfectly fine; not every movie has to be some sort of groundbreaking, earth-shattering experience. Sometimes, a movie is just a way to escape for a couple of hours; “American Assassin” certainly serves that purpose.

[3 out of 5]

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