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'American Assassin' is a watchable thriller

You'll be getting in on the ground floor of something if you see "American Assassin." Whether it turns into a skyscraper or remains a one-floor warehouse at your friendly neighborhood megaplex will depend on how many other people go to see it this weekend.

My vote is for at least one more in this series, simply because despite all deficiencies, it holds the promise of a series a lot better than its opening gambit turns out to be.

We're talking about the first in a series of adaptations of slam-bang big-selling political thrillers in the Tom Clancy/Robert Ludlum mode written by the late Minneapolis novelist Vince Flynn, who died at 47 of prostate cancer after writing a handful-plus of bestsellers. He was a bartender when he wrote the first in his spare time. He wound up a pulp fiction grandee at his tragically premature death.

His main character -- his James Bond if you will -- is Mitch Rapp, a CIA specialist in the blackest of pitch-black ops who hop scotches the world in search of bad guys to knock off in the name of counter terrorist virtue.

The movie begins with his bitter backstory -- his sweet, innocent girlfriend murdered by terrorists on a beach in Ibiza mere seconds after she had said yes to his marriage proposal. It ends with a miscellaneous nuclear device blown up "harmlessly" for wow-fantasy punctuation, a story-telling trope that has become so distressingly common in our thriller-factories that it can't possibly have NOT had an effect on the frivolous way some actual American pols now talk about think about nukes.

Dylan O'Brien in "American Assassin." (Christian Black, CBS Films-Lionsgate)

It was the late director Robert Altman who first had the temerity -- and the individualistic seniority -- to wonder aloud whether apocalyptic Hollywood fantasies weren't, in some way, responsible for 9/11. The relationship of our fantasies to our realities has never been an easy subject. It's just an unavoidable one to think about.

In the middle of this tale of how apprentice killer Mitch Rapp saves the world from apocalypse is a long torture scene, where two of Michael Keaton's fingernails are bloodily removed by Taylor Kitsch, playing a maverick young bad guy who was himself once trained by Keaton. (As an actor, the best thing about Kitsch is his on-the-money and very real last name.)

Keaton's character is Rapp's overseer Hurley, the scowling old guy CIA master assassin and combat virtuoso who trains Rapp in the invidious trade of doing unthinkable things for patriotic reasons. What that means for "American Assassin" is that this prequel to the whole Rapp series can be one of those foolproof movie stories that are always at least a little irresistible -- an educational romance where an old guy indoctrinates a young tyro into some nasty trade or other.

Hurley, though, doesn't really trust Rapp, no matter how much of himself he sees in him. That's because, cliche that he is, he'll always go rogue at the drop of a text message, disobeying every possible order in the process.

Hurley's superior at the CIA, though, likes the kid. That's because he tests off the charts in all the qualities useful for assassins, including psychological instability. She's played by the always-worthy Sanaa Lathan.

Rapp is played by Dylan O'Brien of TV's "Teen Wolf." Don't laugh. Think of him as a young Tom Cruise, with all of the boyishness but none of the twinkle. (Good lord, could this movie have used a joke or two. It's astoundingly humorless.)

Also in the picture this time is a beauty named Shiva Negar who plays a Turkish agent.

After a few aborted attempts, the director wound up to be Michael Cuesta, whose work for TV in this genre for "Homeland" obviously recommended him.

It's why, no doubt, the movie seems like an episode of "Homeland" without psychological complexity but with a high enough budget to film scenes in Rome's Piazza Navona and across from the Victor Emmanuel monument.

It's a watchable thriller -- not all that great but worth trying again at least one more time to smooth things out and see if something better could be made of it.



"American Assassin"

2 1/2 stars (out of four)

Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Shiva Negar and Sanaa Lathan in the first of a projected series of Vince Flynn thriller adaptations about Mitch Rapp, counter-terror superagent for the CIA. Directed by Michael Cuesta. 111 minutes. Rated R for strong violence including a protracted torture scene, language and brief nudity.

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