I didn’t believe a single moment in American Assassin. That’s a shame, because it arrives in theaters with a solid pedigree. Based on a prequel in the late Vince Flynn’s popular series of spy novels, its screenplay is credited to Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. Director Michael Cuesta has top television credits like Homeland and Dexter on his résumé, but he started out making terrific indie films like L.I.E. and 12 and Holding.

Then there’s the cast, led by former teen heartthrob Dylan O’Brien, from Teen Wolf and the Maze Runner series. He’s younger than the novels’ Mitch Rapp, perhaps too young to pull off this hard-bitten character—a likable guy who lashes out at the world after a sudden tragedy. The always-welcome Michael Keaton plays his maverick CIA mentor who’s seen it all and trains him to become a cold-blooded killer, bearing in mind that “it’s never personal.” Keaton’s character seems more of a construct than an actual human being. The inventive actor never finds a way to make this guy distinctive or compelling, let alone credible. Sanaa Lathan does what she can as his perpetually exasperated boss and David Suchet is wasted as her dour-looking superior.

Then there’s Taylor Kitsch, who after a bumpy big-screen career in heroic parts is cast as a take-no-prisoners bad guy. He’s a talented actor but this gig does him no favors. Like his costars he can only do so much with a screenplay that feels contrived from start to finish.

The only distinctions of American Assassin are its use of colorful overseas locations, including Malta and the city of Rome, and its distinctive portrayal of hand-to-hand combat. These intimate fight scenes, shot with a hand-held camera, are palpably painful to watch and offer a level of credibility the rest of the movie sorely lacks. An immense special-effects finale falls under that same heading and despite its great ambition, it left me bored.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024