MOVIE BUFF-ET: O’Brien, Keaton’s charisma lifts derivative “American Assassin”

CBS Films

There’s nothing original about “American Assassin,” nothing at all.

If you lived through the 1980s or are an aficionado of action films from that decade, you’ve, no doubt, seen several films that take a similar course. “American Assassin” is in the same family tree of “Death Wish,” and has parallels to some of Chuck Norris’ oeuvre, but a tad more realistic. Director Michael Cuesta must be a true fan of the genre.

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No doubt action writer Vince Flynn, upon whose novel the film is based, did his due diligence gulping down a metric ton of Tom Clancy’s detailed fiction before tapping out his less-dense version of the type of stories that made Clancy a household name. Screenwriters Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Heskovitz all played some hand in writing the script that lacks surprise but does punch all the necessary buttons.

Did I say the movie’s not original?

Even though I didn’t need a road map to see where the film was going, it was a rollicking ride that I quite enjoyed.

For me Cuesta’s direction was fairly seamless. The action moved along at a good clip, and while most of the story was a incredulous, the pace kept me from picking the plot apart and unnecessarily overthinking the film.

However the driving forces behind the movie are Dylan O’Brien, of “Teen Wolf” fame, and Michael Keaton.

While O’Brien played the sarcastic sidekick who always needed saving on the supernatural teen drama, he morphs into an alpha wolf as Mitch Rapp in this movie. Under the tutelage of Keaton’s Stan Hurley, an ex-military man who now trains CIA agents for deadly work, O’Brien’s Rapp is a character that might just garner a sequel.

After a life-altering tragedy, Rapp is out to take down the terrorists by any means neccessary. Impressed, CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) recruits Rapp and places him in Hurley’s training program.

Hurley believes Rapp is too undisciplined to be of any use. He thinks Rapp is blinded by his personal vendetta. Hurley fears Rapp might be killed on his forst assignment, or even go rouge when pushed too far like another pupil of his.

As the film unravels, a nuclear bomb threat is revealed, and its up to Rapp and Hurley to stop the threat before Italy is blown to smithereens.

O’Brien is a star in the making. This film won’t be the one to ignite his career, but it might just be the one to nab him the part that will. He has a sarcastic charisma, not unlike Keaton’s when he was young, to deliver the one-liners that will be required of him if he chooses to stay in the action-film lane. However, O’Brien also has a strong sense of comedic timing that should serve him well throughout his career.

As for Keaton, his presence automatically lifts every film he’s in. His turn late last year as McDonald’s mastermind Ray Kroc in “The Founder” even made fast food interesting, and he added just the right amount of heart as the Vulture in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” to balance out a menacing performance as the aging, blue-collar villain.

I’d never argue that “American Assassin” is a great movie. It’s too derivative. Yet, it was a fun and exciting time at the movies.

(R) 1 hr. 51 min
Grade: B

Classic Corner

Call Northside 777

When it premiered, “Call Northside 777” was somewhat revolutionary. The 1948 Henry Hathaway-directed film tells the story of Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), a man wrongly convicted of a murder and how his mother saved for 11 years for the money that would help clear his name.

Today the plot, which was based on a true story, is something we might routinely view on any one of the dozens of crime procedurals that fill up TV time slots. However, the dark subject matter culled from the front page of the “Chicago Times” was as fresh as the starched shirts worn by P.J. McNeal (James Stewart), the cynical reporter who becomes a believer in Wiecek’s innocence the deeper he delves into the murder.

So if the the plot is so mundane by today’s standards, why should a modern audience bother with the movie?

The answer is simply Jimmy Stewart.

While I wouldn’t rank the film in the top 10 of the actor’s many film performances, any movie featuring Stewart is worth a watch. He breaths heart and passion into the role of McNeal, and his performance makes even this most common of stories lively and worth the investment.

Conte is solid as Wiecek, but the character is written a little too righteous. Kasia Orzazewski is strong as Tillie Wiecek, the mother who labored in hopes of seeing her son exonerated. Lee J. Cobb adds able support at McNeal’s editor Brian Kelly.

There’s some discussion among critics whether the movie should fall under the film noir banner. The argument is that McNeal and Wiecek are traditional heroes rather than the more realistic characters that necessarily populate most noir movies. To me, it doesn’t matter. I like traditional heroes, anyway.

Turner Classic Movies airs the “Call Northside 777” at 7 p.m. Sunday night.