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Promising 'American Assassin' defaults to action cliches
Dylan OBrien and Shiva Negar in American Assassin. - photo by Josh Terry
AMERICAN ASSASSIN 2 stars Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch; R (strong violence throughout, some torture, language and brief nudity); in general release

"American Assassin" doesn't feel like the right title for the new film based on Vince Flynn's novel. "Hollywood Assassin" feels more accurate for a routine action thriller that eschews its gritty potential for a cliched and disappointing final product.

Director Michael Cuesta's film tells the story of Mitch Rapp ("The Maze Runner's" Dylan O'Brien), a troubled civilian who tries to turn himself into a one-man anti-terrorist squad after his fiancee Katrina (Charlotte Vega) is murdered during a mass killing on a beautiful beach in Spain.

Driven by his lust for revenge, Mitch trains relentlessly, absorbing the language and doctrine of Jihad, and even infiltrates the terrorist cell responsible for Katrina's death. But right as he is about to unleash his vigilante fury and murder Katrina's killer which will presumably get Mitch killed the cell is stormed by black ops troops, who kill all the bad guys and take Mitch into custody.

Because he has shown such promise, Mitch is plugged into a black ops training program led by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), who is tasked with getting the youngster onto a less reckless and slightly less life-threatening path. During his time in Hurley's off-the-books assassin boot camp, Mitch continues to show promise, offset with a persistent knack for defying authority. But it soon becomes clear this is the kind of movie that rewards defiance rather than deals it a harsh dose of humility.

While this is happening, we also learn about a batch of weapons-grade plutonium that has been stolen and is being trafficked on the international black market. Intelligence suggests that a rogue operative named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) is behind the operation, and though his motives are unclear, his history with the other characters in the film raises various alarms.

By the time "American Assassin's" primary plot moves into place, we see Mitch assigned to his first job, working with a classmate named Victor (Scott Adkins) and a femme fatale named Annika (Shiva Negar) to track down Ghost. It's a story that starts off with some interesting potential but eventually slides into familiar territory as Hurley gets involved and Mitch continues to defy authority.

The biggest problem with "American Assassin" is it suggests the gritty reality of a film by Kathryn Bigelow, director of "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," but then steers its story and its protagonist into more of a dolled-up Tom Cruise-style action piece.

You want even expect Mitch to learn discipline and humility as he is faced with the reality that he must work with a team to succeed. But any growth is constantly short-circuited by a script and story that insists on validating its protagonist's impulsive and defiant behavior, always making Mitch "right" while his authority figures are always painted as impotent and ineffective. The action is plenty exciting, but its an empty victory for brainless bravado over what could have been plausible and compelling storytelling.

There's nothing wrong with a brainless action thriller, especially if you know that's what you're getting on the way in. But "American Assassin" is a disappointment because it feels like it could have been something more.

American Assassin is rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language and brief nudity; running time: 111 minutes.