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American Assassin (2017)

Lionsgate
4K UHD Released: 12/5/2017

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/11/2017

If you were to catch me off-guard and ask me if I like spy movies, my answer would most likely be yes. But, given a chance to think about it, I would realize that's not 100% true. Now, I don't hate the genre, but when I look back over the spy films I've seen, I do realize that there are things which I don't like about them. For starters, they are often needlessly complicated. Yes, I realize that the world of foreign affairs and espionage is complicated, but these movies go out of their ways to have indecipherable plots and too many double-crosses. The characters are either over-the-top and unbelievable or too "gritty" and unbelievable. All of this may point to why I found American Assassin so refreshing.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) is enjoying a holiday in Ibiza, where he was just proposed to his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega). This beautiful scene is abruptly shattered, as terrorists storm the beach, firing at will, where they injure Mitch and murder Katrina. Months later, Mitch has dropped out of college and honed himself into a chiseled killing machine. He has managed to gain the trust of a terrorist cell and flies to Turkey, where he plans on massacring his recruiters. However, his plan his foiled by a group of American operatives, who capture Mitch and take him to Langley. There, he meets CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). Impressed by Mitch's ability to infiltrate the enemy, Kennedy sends Mitch to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) for training. Hurley will teach Mitch to further hone his skills. Together, they will soon finds themselves involved in a race to stop a mysterious terrorist from obtaining stolen uranium and using it to create a nuclear weapon.

I watched a few seasons of the Teen Wolf TV series, and something jumped out at me -- I found Stiles (played by Dylan O'Brien), who is the sidekick and comic relief on the show, much more interesting and appeal than Scott (played by Tyler Posey), the titular wolf and supposed center of the show. In fact, I often found it far-fetched that the other characters would gravitate to Scott and not Stiles. Therefore, I wasn't surprised when O'Brien began to move beyond the show and find his place in feature films. Following a turn in The Internship, O'Brien landed the lead in The Maze Runner series of films. I'm sure that experience with action landed him in the role of Mitch Rapp. This presents a departure for O'Brien, as Mitch is a damaged and angry man of few words. (I didn't count while watching the movie, but I would bet that O'Brien has the least lines of any of the principal characters.) Not only is it a very physically demanding role, we must believe that this man is willing to die for his cause.

But, in many ways, Mitch, as the "man on a mission", isn't a very original character. What makes American Assassin stand out is its no-nonsense approach to its material. It would be a misnomer to call the movie simplistic, but it finds a way to offer the standard ingredients of a spy movie -- action sequences, international locales, bad guys -- without wallowing in the negative aspects which I cited above. The story is very straightforward and never tries too hard to be overly-clever. The characters aren't caricatures and each has distinguishing features. While it is nearly two hours, the movie never feels like it's stretching things out.

The other thing acting in American Assassin's favor is its degree of realism. Again, this is a spy movie and there are some heightened elements here, but much of the film appears to be making an effort to keep it real. The villains aren't Goldfinger or Blofeld type bad guys who have lairs craved into the side of a mountain -- they are corrupt government leaders and rogue agents. We do get action sequences, but nothing which goes too far into the realm of defying physics. And, of course, at the center of all of this is Mitch and the rage which drives him. Does the CIA really recruit people in this way? I don't know, but the fact that he was a civilian who was given a chance to turn his passion for vengeance into something bigger is certainly interesting.

I hope that I'm not making American Assassin sound like something more than what it is, but it's simplicity is what makes it satisfying. Like a fulfilling home-cooked meal, the movie delivers the ingredients for which we are looking with no unnecessary frills. One could argue that the Bourne films feature similar elements, but while those movies are good, they lose themselves in the minutia. It would be an overstatement to say that American Assassin is minimalist, but it strips away all of the unnecessary elements and delivers an exciting spy movie which can teach the genre a thing or two.

American Assassin marks Ibiza off of my travel list on 4K UHD courtesy of Lionsgate. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an HEVC 2160p transfer which runs at an average of 70 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look very good, and the image is never overly dark or bright. While there are some dark moments, the transfer handles them well and the image remains balanced. The level of detail is very impressive, and the image is never soft. The Disc carries a Dolby Atmos audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 5.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The action sequences provide strong subwoofer effects, which emphasize each explosion, punch, and gunshot. The surround sound and front channels are very active as well, most notably during the bar scene and the car chase. The movement of these effects places us squarely in the middle of the action.

The American Assassin 4K UHD contains several extra features. "Target Acquired: Creating an American Assassin" (10 minutes) looks at how the source novel was adapted and how the origin story was the best way to bring Mitch Rapp to the screen. We hear from late author Vince Flynn's widow here, as well as members of the creative team. "Finding Mitch Rapp: Dylan O'Brien" (10 minutes) explores the search to bring the right actor into the film and how O'Brien was found. Michael Keaton and Taylor Kitsch's characters are profiled in "Transfer of Power: Hurley and Ghost" (14 minutes), which offers comments from the actors. "Weaponized: Training and Stunts" (12 minutes) takes us on-set and behind the scenes to see how O'Brien and the others learned how to fight and use guns for their roles. "In the Field: On Location" (9 minutes) takes us to Turkey, Rome, and other places to show the international scope of the film. "Alamo Drafthouse Q&A" (26 minutes) has O'Brien and Kitsch fielding questions following a screening of the film.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long