What role does emotion play in violence? This question lies at the core of the schlocky spy yarn “American Assassin,” though the film doesn’t offer any clear answer.
Based on the book by Vince Flynn and directed by Michael Cuesta, “American Assassin” opens with a mass shooting, continues with plenty of explicit torture and ends with Navy destroyers in peril and nuclear bombs in play. Escapist this movie is not.
Dylan O’Brien (“Teen Wolf,” “Maze Runner”) stars as Mitch Rapp, a young man who loses everything in a terrorist attack and is hellbent on extracting revenge. The first third of the film, in which he poses as an American jihadist so he can infiltrate a terrorist cell, presents a fascinating a portrait of reckless male energy channeled in all the wrong ways, even if for the right reasons.
Soon Mitch is recruited by the CIA and taken to a top-secret camp run by special forces trainer Stan Hurley, played by an off-the-leash Michael Keaton. Here, Hurley molds his charges into killing machines through brutal fistfights, virtual-reality taser shootouts and extreme macho posturing.
The training is designed to drain all emotion from his students. For example, he triggers Mitch’s recollections of trauma over and over again while shouting, “You let emotion cloud your judgment! Never let it get personal!” In Hurley’s world, the ability to shut out all feeling makes an operative effective. But Mitch just can’t bring himself to suppress all his emotions, and he goes rogue on a mission in Istanbul, and reverts to acting on impulse.
As viewers discover, Hurley’s methods have…
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