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Happy Death Day

My first introduction to horror movies was the slasher craze of the 90's. They're ridiculously campy, but completely entertaining. Scream in particular is an all time fave because of the way that it parodies the genre while still being a part of it. It plays with tropes and doesn't take itself too seriously in the process. Happy Death Day is the first movie that I've felt recaptures that spirit, and it was such a blast to watch.

So imagine Scream as Groundhog Day and throw in a little Mean Girls. Tree (played fabulously by Jessica Rothe, potentially star making turn) lives through what seems like a typical birthday in college, complete with class, covert trysts, and a frat party thrown in her honor. Oh except she never makes it to the party because she's killed on the way there. And then she wakes up right back where she started her day. Thus she's stuck in a loop until she can figure out who keeps on killing her.

As I said in my Stardust reaction, if a horror movie is not gonna be a masterpiece (and few are), I would much rather it double down on the cheese than the scares. I am much more likely to get invested in a movie that's fun than one that's overly serious. Cheap jump scare movies don't do it for me. Campy thrillers do.

Happy Death Day doesn't even try to be serious. It knows it's place in the world, and that's always an admirable quality in a film. It plays up the cheese factor and embraces it, much in the same way that Scream did. It picks apart horror tropes and Groundhog day tropes, particularly the latter. I loved some of the creative curveballs it threw into the genres, keeping it just a bit unpredictable. Even if I figured out the killer pretty quickly, these movies were never about who did it. They're about surviving long enough to find out who did it.

In all honestly, and this is a sentence I never expected to type, this was some of the most fun I've had the movies all year. We're looking at a potential top ten contender for me. And I am oh so pleasantly surprised.

Happy Death Day - \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/
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Brawl in Cell Block 99

If you go into a movie with minimal knowlege, and the experience is subpar because it did not fit the genre you expected, is that your own fault for not doing your homework or the movie's fault for not making itself more clear? That's the philosophical conundrum I had after Brawl in Cell Block 99. I knew that Vince Vaughn was leaving his comedic persona behind and taking on a more dramatic and intense role. The buzz on Stardust was that it was very intense indeed. What I failed to pick up on was that it was apparently meant to be more grindhouse than serious drama, at least according to the Rotten Tomatoes summarized review. That's a very crucial piece of information that woulda changed my perception completely.

Vaughn plays a southern tough guy who turns to drug running to provide for his wife and unborn child. Of course, as tends to happen to most drug runners, he soon finds himself in prison. Not long after landing in a min security prison, an employee of his very upset employer threatens his family if he doesn't get himself into max security prison and kill an inmate. So Vaughn gets violent.

Here's why the grindhouse detail was crucial. I had such a hard time getting into the movie because it was so incredibly unbelivable. The specific threat against his wife was intense. The max security prison would violate so many federal laws. I also doubted the chemistry between Vaughn and Jennifer Carpenter, but that wouldn't have been helped. I just couldn't convince myself the scenario was plausible enough to get behind it. Also, the violence is incredibly graphic. Normally, I'm okay with that. And in a Grindhouse context, I'd absolutely be okay with that. But still thinking it was serious drama, it seemed way excessive.

I think this is how I missed that point. The movie took way too long (nearly an hour) in the set up to get Vaughn to prison. And much of that set up did seem like taking-itself-way-too-seriously drama. I'd have expected a grindhouse movie to cut right to the action. Vince Vaughn destroying a car out of anger with his bare hands does not count. That seemed more like dramatic overacting.

Lemme cut him a break. Vaughn was actually pretty good. If you only know him as a Frat Pack actor, he's unrecognizable. He's also a pretty big guy, so casting him as a toughened roughneck was genius. He looked the part and fit it quite well. It's just the movie wasn't clear to me on its intentions, and I misinterpreted everything. Had I known what I was watching, I prolly woulda loved it and given it a higher score. Learn from my mistakes!

Brawl in Cell Block 99 - \m/ \m/ \n
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Blade Runner 2049

If you watch my Stardust reaction for this movie, you'll see me scream in frustration. Frustration because I wanted so badly to love this movie, and the pacing made it so dang hard. Let's back up.

We're looking at a far removed sequel to scifi classic Blade Runner. I have so much respect for that movie. It's fascinating story and mythology that's been created. But everytime I try to watch it (which I did a few days before the sequel), I just can't get into it. My patience is tested and it loses my interest. The new one seemed to have the same problem.

Now, there's no denying that this film is visually stunning. That actually seems like a very underwhelming way of putting it, but it truly is one of the most beautiful films I've seen. I'll be damned if this doesn't finally nab Roger Deakins his long overdue cinematography Oscar.

The cast was also phenomenal. Harrison Ford really impressed me with how expressive he was. He's a man of few words (on screen and IRL) but the looks he give tell volumes. Ryan Gosling was perfect casting. His ability to play his emotions subtly and keep things close to the vest were very appropriate for his character, as is his ability to show empathy.

But slow pacing is a movie killer for me. I talked to a friend who said that they didn't care about the pace because they had pretty pictures and an amazing soundtrack to get thru the narrative lulls. I need a story that's constantly moving forward. I get that film is meant to be art that is appreciated for different elements, but it doesn't work on me. Had we knocked out the excess run time and kept it at or below two hours, I'd prolly be feeling differently. And I hate that I feel this way. *scream of frustration*

Blade Runner 2049 - \m/ \m/ \m/
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American Made

Maverick is taking to the skies again! So nice to see Tom Cruise on screen with that signature swagger and charm. This time, however, that charm lives in a morally gray area as he plays a real life pilot who did covert work for the CIA and combined that with drug smuggling. Made for a different dynamic than we've seen from Cruise before.

For some reason, though, I wasn't all that into it and I can't quite figure out why. The story was simultaneously new yet the same (it was like a bunch of familiar stories tied together differently). The pacing wasn't quite there either.

I think that most of it was that I didn't like his character. His greed rubbed me the wrong way, as did his seemingly lack of moral compass. I know, I'm saying that as someone who adores Patrick Bateman, but it's different when your protagonist is being portrayed in a more positive light despite their questionable choices. I just couldn't get behind him, and therefore couldn't get behind the movie.

Cruise was very much at ease in the role, and was mostly fun to watch. However, I was more impressed with Domnhall Gleeson, who has been moving higher and higher up my ranks of favorites. This was a showy-er role than we've seen from him, and simply put I found him more interesting. Although my real favorite was Jayma Mays in her two scenes. I've never seen her play such a forceful character and I loved it (this was no Glee guidance counselor). Could we redo the movie from her perspective?

American Made - \m/ \m/ \n
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Flatliners

I totally knew what I was getting myself into. Nothing from the trailers screamed that this would be a good movie. Just the opposite. But I'm stubborn. And the cast was so likeable! And the premise was interesting, so maybe it could be the good kinda bad?

I haven't seen the original Flatliners, but I did see an episode of Smallville that basically ripped it off. So I can't say whether or not it holds up or if it warranted a remake (there's an argument that Kiefer Sutherland is playing the same character so it's actually a far removed sequel). Anyways, med school students experiment with dying and being revived so that they can experience the afterlife. When they come back, their brains are seemingly rewired in a way that heightens their congitive abilities, but also leads to hallucinations and other terrors.

I was kinda into the first half. Cheesy but good kinda bad psycho-thriller. Suspense was built well and again, likeable cast (Ellen Paige and Diego Luna!) But then once a significant portion of our characters had flatlined, the movie lost all sense of purpose and direction. It started go go less psychological and more horror and was incredibly disjointed. It felt like different ideas were thrown out and written into the screenplay without any thought of connecting them or completing them, so very poorly written.

I said on Stardust that if you do think you might find merit in the film, it's possible you will. Again, I was kinda into it at first. But if you're one who actually listens to the warnings in your head (I'm clearly not) then stay away. It ended up being a frustrating experience lamenting the lost potential and cursing the lack of effort

Flatliners - \m/ \m/
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Battle of the Sexes

When is a sports movie not a sports movie? When it's about so much more than the game. As is the case with Battle of the Sexes. Yeah, it's about a tennis game, but even moreso it's about feminism, and equality, and LGBTQ rights, and various other issues that are still as relevant today as they were in the 70's.

The game in question was between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, played here by Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. Riggs decided that at 55 years old, he could beat any female tennis player in her prime because men were just so much better at the sport than women. Meanwhile, King was fighting her own battles for equality, having helped create a women's tennis league to prove that the ladies can get just as many spectators in the seats and therefore deserved to be paid the same as the guys.

As enjoyable as this movie was, there were some parts of it that were just so frustrating. While I adore Carrell, his character was infuriating. I could not stand the attitudes he was brandishing, nor could I fathom how he'd get so much support behind him. Bill Pullman played a similarly chauvinistic character that I likewise couldn't stand. Scenes with those two flaunting their idealogy were enraging.

Thankfully, the women were there to save the day and the movie. Billie Jean King is fascinating. On the one hand, I'm apalled that I didn't know who she was before this movie. But on the other, learning about her has been such a joy (not just in the movie, but she's also made some great promotional TV appearances). She is the type of role model I could certainly get behind, and I'm excited to one day show this movie to my hypothetical someday future daughter. Emma Stone absolutely captured her spirit, and dare I say that this was a much better role for her than La La Land?

All of that just added layers that raised the stakes of the game once we finally got there. This wasn't just a sports movie where you're rooting for the underdog because you've come to love them over the past two hours. You're rooting for them because the fate of the world really does rest in their tennis rackets. And that makes for a truly special and emotional movie watching experience

Battle of the Sexes - \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/
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Lego Ninjago

The Lego Movie was one of the most unexpectedly brilliant comedies (kiddie or otherwise) of the past few years. Then came Lego Batman which tried (with minimal to moderate success) to build an entire movie around a few key jokes. Now we have Lego Ninjago which tries to apply the original Movie formula to their popular line of toys. Similarly mixed success.

Where Ninjago succeeds is primarily in the first half of the movie. For a little while, it seems to recapture the same magic that made the first movie so special. It was funny and clever (Meowthra!!) and bolstered by some great voice work (Justin Theroux and Dave Franco in particular). And then it just got kinda dull.

Part way through, it seemed to lose the fun of Lego and focus more on the Ninja. There are many saying that this is what the new Power Rangers movie should have been, and at the very least I'll agree that Ninjago was superior. But for me, once that focus shifted, it could have been any kid friendly martial arts franchise. It didn't maintain the humor is started with, and it lost my interest.

It's still no question that Lego Movie was the best by far. I'm torn about Batman vs Ninjago.

Lego Ninjago - \m/ \m/ \n
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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

So I did very much enjoy the first Kingsman movie, but I always had this feeling that it was missing something I couldn't ever quite figure out. Therefore the idea of a bigger sequel actually sounded like a good idea to me. Maybe it would add whatever was missing before. The new cast members certainly looked like a step in the right direction. It worked for me, but the response on Stardust seems to have been rather mixed.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton, whom I still absolutely adore) is back in action with the other superspies, until a rejected recruit enables a super villain to take out nearly the entire organization. He and Merlin (Mark Strong) find their way to their US cowboy counterpart Statesman for help rebuilding and revenging.

It took me a little while to get into it. The first action sequence was so over the top unrealistic, I had a hard time buying in. It wasn't until I realized part way through the first act that realism was never promised, that I decided I was okay with the practically scifi level superspy abilities and just went with it. Once I made my peace with that, I really appreciated the rest of the action sequences. Sure, they mostly go against all laws of physics and nature, but they look pretty dang cool. This is one of those movies where it's okay to care more about looking cool than being scientifically accurate.

The big win for me though was in the new additions to the cast. Channing Tatum was born to be a Statesman, I only wish we saw more of him. Halle Berry fit in so much better as a Q type than she did at her questionable Bond girl role (which is to say I prefer to see a girl acting smart over pretty). The standout for me, however, was Julianne More. First off, points for a deluded lady villain. Not something seen often. I later found that others thought her performance divisive, but I loved it. Yes, over the top, but over the top is what this movie called for. She was essentially channeling Gene Hackman Lex Luthor, which I thought was fitting and expertly done. The other cast standout was Elton John's expanded cameo, which was a total scene stealer every time.

If you're looking for the prestige of Bond or grit of Bourne, this ain't the game for you. But if you want something a little crazier that's more of a spectacle, then I say it was a jolly good show.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle - \m/ \m/ \m/ \n
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Stronger

I've been waiting nearly a year and a half to write this blog post. In hindsight, I prolly should have written the first part back then and then waited to finish it. Anyways, the reason I've been waiting is that back in April and June of last year, while still in Boston, I got to work a couple of days as a background extra on this film! I was holding off on blogging about the experience until it was released.

After responding to a couple of cattle calls for extras, I was on an email list for background film work. I'd respond to things here and there, but few opportunities were workable for someone who worked full time 9-5, and I rarely ever got a response back. Until the one time that I did. A phone call told me when and where to be, and advised that I purchased some Boston Bruins gear to wear.

I arrived in my sweatshirt that was way too big for me and found myself at what appeared to be a store or restaurant space that was under construction. Lots of people were piled in there. Half of them thought they were there to work on Patriot's Day, which was filming at the same time in the city. Waited in a line to get a form, then waited in a line to get my costume approved (the hoodie was apparently good enough; those without Bruins stuff were mostly handed Blackhawks stuff), snacked from a buffet and then waited. There would be a lot of waiting that day. I musta read about half of Stephen King's Pet Sematary by the time I left over twelve hours later.

Eventually, they walked us over to the TD Garden. Some of us were handed props as we walked over to our seats. I at one point was given a near beer to hold, but I don't think I started with it. This was so exciting. I was on a real life movie set! Yet somehow I was also on the same street where I had worked for three years at my first post college job.

At some point some dude who was in charge started placing us and giving us things to do. Me and some other guy had to wait a few beats and then walk to our specified seats and then chill like we were waiting for the game. A few takes of this were done, then we were rearranged and the camera moved, and we did it again. Apparently Jake Gyllenhaal and other key people were in one of the boxes next to us. Two guys in full out Blackhawks gear would start walking in across the way, yell something out, and have something yelled back to them from the box. I was just freaking out that I was so close to Donnie Darko. I also found it odd how much other activity was going on in the Garden, setting up for the game and such. Kids were playing on the ice. Did they really not need to rent out the whole place?

After a few rounds of background shots here, they moved a few of us into a hallway. While awaiting instructions, an elevator opened and out wheeled Jake in a Bruins jersey and a wheelchair contraption that hid his legs. I stopped breathing. He moved into the box. I would catch similar glimpses of him throughout the day, but never really got any closer. Us extras were split into two groups and put on either side of the entrance to the box and directed to walk towards each other. Once we'd pass the door, we were instructed to get in the back of the line and cross again when we reached the front. We could almost hear the scene being shot inside the room we were walking past.

There was a bit of waiting inside the Garden while more was filmed. Eventually we were sent back to holding. We were gonna wait out the game there and come back after. This wait was miserable. We weren't allowed to touch the food that was laid out until everyone was back (a few were held back to keep filming), and then union peeps got to go first. The hollowed out restaurant was freezing. There were only some hard plastic folding chairs. The porta potties set up outside for us were overflowing. I got a lot of reading done, while constantly checking my phone to see how close the game was to finishing.

Finally, the game was over and they let us back in. Fans at the game had been encouraged to stay behind, and we could hear them cheering as the Jake/Jeff was on the ice waving the flag. Wait, why did they keep us this whole time if they could have just used game attendees? Doesn't matter. It meant more time in the experience, and it eventually put us into double overtime (I think my take home after taxes and after accoutning for the sweatshirt was somewhere just shy of $100). But yeah, they let us in and we're on the opposite side of the arena, facing Jake/Jeff as he waves his banner.

Fun fact about that bit. You prolly saw it in the trailer. He's waving the flag with a huge crowd around him. There was not a huge crowd when it filmed. There was a small cluster on either side of him, and another across. And the lighting was different. Movie magic at work!

They rounded us back up inside the Garden, held onto a few people (not me) to film an elevator scene of some sort, and let the rest of us go home. Which really meant sent the rest of us back to the cold holding area to wait in line for an hour to get our paperwork done.

Once I rested and recovered, I was so excited about what had happened, but also kinda disappointed. It was so cool to actually get to work on a real full scale movie (that starred one of my faves!), but we also weren't treated very well. And I was pretty well convinced that I wouldn't see myself in any footage from the day. Oh well, at least it was something I could say happened.

But it didn't stop there. That was apparently one of the first days of filming. They were there for another two months. Fast forward to June, and I'm still seeing emails going out about needing extras. And there's one for a Saturday! Except it's at like 4 AM. Having been on this email list for a while, I knew that sometimes if they're in desperate need of people, they'll start sending out text alerts the day of. I figure I'll wait for that.

The texts start the night before. Emergency call! Extras needed. I decide to wait until I have enough sleep before responding. I eventually do, and I get a call back with the when and where. We're filming the marathon stuff on Boylston street. I'm on it!

This time, they hold us in the basement ballroom of a hotel or something. Infinitely nicer than before. Real working bathrooms! I had quickly thrown together a few potential costume pieces, knowing that I likely wouldn't have any viable shirts that didn't have logos or anything on them. The costumer loves my pink plaid pants, and tries a few options before settling on a mint sweatshirt she lends me.

Then guess what? Waiting! I think I was re-reading American Psycho by this point (Pet Sematary was loooong finished). Again, half the people I talk to think they're there for Patriot's Day. They walk us out to Boylston street, where the rest of the extras have been standing on one side of the road watching our small group of runners. They stick us on the end of the crowd for the last couple takes. The runners start to run in, and on cue, they look towards the finish line in shock.

And break time! Almost as soon as I got there. They shove way too many of us into McGreevy's where there's an assortment of snacks waiting. We're told we have an hour. I see Jake across the street just chilling. It takes all my willpower not to run over to him and profess my love of Donnie Darko. After that hour, the mass of extras are assembled. They call for the people who came in the later group. That's me! Because we hadn't already been on camera that morning, we were gonna be put closer to the camera. I knew procrastination had it's benefits!!

We move a couple blocks down the street towards the finish line. Most of the crowd is piled together on the sidewalk. The twenty or so of us from the later crowd are given specific placement and direction. I'm paired with some guy and we were told to walk down to the street to the crowd. As almost an afterthought once our instructions are given, the dude placing us reiterates the instructions including "You're gonna be walking behind our hero". Um, what?! Did I just hear that right? I couldn't have heard that right. We're just walking in the background like at the Garden, yeah?

We do the first take. People start to move. My buddy and I wait for our queue. We start walking from a block away towards the crowd. There's an alleyway we cross to get there. But before we reach the alley, guess who walks out? Yuuuuup. And we really are right behind him OMGWTFAHHHHH!!

There were a bunch of takes like that. He comes out of the alley, turns to the crowd, and goes to hold up his sign. Then there were a few takes with another group put in between us (boo), but def more with me right behind my guy. At one point, we were standing around in our starting point waiting to go. Jake comes out from the alley and calls to someone behind me. He's basically 6 feet away from me, looking just past me. I couldn't breathe again.

At some point, it's over. We're rounded up and told to go back to holding unless we had wristbands that designated us for a bar scene. That was not me. Waited in line to return my borrowed costume piece and then another line to get my paperwork done. It was a shorter day (though my take home was still close to $60), so I had time to head to the AMC Boston Common nearby and catch a matinee. Win of a day! Much better experience than the day at the Garden too! And a better chance of screen time.

Then I just had to wait. We thought it'd be released in December, but obvs they didn't wanna compete with Patriot's Day. Months go by. I move to LA. The release date gets announced. Then a trailer is released. It has a couple of shots of Jake/Jeff waving the flag, and a couple of him holding his sign in the marathon crowd. So there are at least scenes I was on set for. This is promising!!

The day finally comes. I had decided that I wanted to go all out and see it at a nice theater. Cinemark Playa Vista is showing it, so I get tickets for the reserve level. Order a hamburger delivered to my seat and sit back in the nice reclining seat. I don't think I've ever been so anxious for a movie. At least I know that one of my potential scenes is early on, so I don't hafta wait too long.

The film gets to marathon day. Once again, I can't breathe. Heart is pounding. The movie plays out, and here's a shot behind Jake as he walks out of the alley. IRL I'm right on the other side of that wall, except the movie doesn't show that. It cuts from that to him in the crowd, as I later feared it would. Alas, left on the cutting room floor.

Halfway through the movie, Jake/Jeff starts talking about going to a Bruins game. For some reason, I thought this was meant for the end of the movie, but okay cool, we can get this scene done and then I can really just sit back and relax. I watch the scene inside the box, and it's all such tight closeup, you don't see any extras at all. In fact, the shots of him in the crowd had also been pretty tight close up. You couldn't even see 5 out of the couple hundred extras. We see him on the ice with the flag, but there's no way to distinguish one person from another in the crowd. Again, on film it was packed. IRL, there was only a fraction of that many people. Then he has a scene in an elevator (no, there weren't extras inside the elevator as I'd previously assumed), and then we're on to the next scene.

So all that waiting, and no screen time. I'd kinda expected as much, which is why while I did talk about this a bit, I tried not to make a big deal. It was more about the experience. I'm sure once the DVD is out, I'll go frame by frame of those key scenes just in case, but I'm not too optimistic, and that's okay. I've been there, I've seen the sausage being made, and that's something I can check off my bucket list. And I'm glad that the movie's doing really well. It coulda been RIPD that I had this experience on instead, but thankfully they never responded to my sign ups on their call list.

Now we finally get to what this blog is usually for. Movie write ups (I don't like to call them reviews). Clearly, I can't be objective about this one since I'm connected to it. So take all this with a larger grain of salt than you normally would. However, most of what I'm thinking does seem to line up with the general consensus out there, so I'm not all that biased!

I mostly have two points to make. The first is the cast gave fantastic performances. Jake was pitch perfect, and I would love to see him be a player this awards season. It might be a tough battle, but he's at least in the preliminary conversations, so that's a start. Tatiana Maslany is fantastic too. I hadn't seen much of her (I don't watch Orphan Black) but she had this really grounded and un-glamorized quality that worked so well. The dynamics of their relationship were also very real. It wasn't a Hollywood-ized love story. It was the good and bad and really bad, and her being strong enough to know her limits.

The other point is yeah, it felt real. It wasn't a cheesy inspirational film. It was an emotional film that showed real struggles. It didn't put Jeff Bauman on a pedastal, but rather showed him with all his flaws and inner demons. Much of the film was shot really close, which gave it an even more intimate quality. You saw the raw emotion and you felt it. Again, it deserves any awards push it gets because it transcends the cookie cutter "true story" goop you normally see. I'm proud of this to have been the first (hopefully of more to come) movies that I got to be a part of, even in some very minor way.

Stronger - \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/
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American Assassin

What is it with Hollywood and spy movies lately? When was the last time a truly unique, original, and engaging one came along? Lately we've got great characters with solid casting, and we've had great combat and action sequences. The stories however, leave a lot to be desired. The enemies and events are all interchangable and it's getting even harder and harder to hold my attention. Such was the plight of American Assassin.

After swearing revenge on the terrorists that took out his fiance, Dylan O'Brien gets recruited by the CIA to join a super secret elite group of superspies trained by Michael Keaton. Bad stuff is happening somewhere in the world, and it appears to be caused by Taylor Kitsch, who is a dropout of the same superprogram.

Basically gonna be quoting my Stardust reaction here, but what the movie gets right is the cast. Keaton may not have had much to work with, but he always elevates any movie he's in (see also, Spider-Man: Homecoming). Truly a formidable boss man to reckon with. I also really liked Taylor Kitsch. This was a meatier role for him to sink his teeth into than anything we've seen from him. Okay, it might have still been generic terrorist baddie, but it's a step up from generic sensitive pretty boy. My point is (and I'm trying to make this a compliment) that the role fit him well and it's some of the best we've seen from him.

O'Brien was actually the standout. The boy has some serious star potential, and this is a much better showcase for that than what we've seen in the Maze Runner series. True, this material still needs some work, but if he follows this path and gets a really good script with a fantastic director, he could head straight to the A list. He carried the film well, had a lot of attitude, and nailed the combat sequences (which were all pretty much on point).

Unfortunately though, the story was too lacking. I actually was a bit uncomfortable with the initial set up of middle eastern terrorists, because that theme has been overdone and it's becoming really insensitive. Somewhere along the way we changed course to Russia, so I guess slight improvement there maybe? Still, it felt a little half baked, which is a shame. The other elements were there to make this a killer movie, but instead it's innocuous.

American Assassin - \m/ \m/ \n
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