American Assassin is dour, Only The Brave is lacking, Happy Death Day is cheeky

American Assassin lacks energy, Only The Brave lacks imagination and Happy Death Day lacks scares

Two films this week deal with interesting subjects, but both fail in visual and storytelling imagination. A pity indeed.

When the word "American" is in the movie title, it is usually used ironically, or at least quasi-tragically. Hence, American Made (still showing in cinemas), American Gigolo (1980) or American Psycho (2000) and, yes, even the crass comedy American Pie (1999).

American Assassin (NC16, 112 minutes, opens today, 2.5/5 stars) is that one rare example in which the tongue is not in cheek - protagonist Mitch (Dylan O'Brien) is an American kid who actually becomes an assassin.

This case of the contents being what it says on the tin does this action-thriller no favours. With a plot this farfetched, a dollop - a very big dollop - of brio is required to make it all work. Instead, you get the dour, low-key realism seen here.

Mitch (O'Brien, his brows furrowed at maximum intensity) seems to have it all, until a jihadist massacre takes away his fiance. Seeking revenge, he trains to be a one-man army. But his plans are thwarted by the Central Intelligence Agency, who imprison him and send him to Hurley.

Hurley - played by Michael Keaton having fun pretending to be part Marine drill sergeant, part Shaolin master - is an instructor who will turn the hothead into a cold-blooded killing machine.

Director Michael Cuesta, making his feature debut, shows his television roots (Homeland, 2011-2012) in the slow, methodical advancement of plot and character.

The trans-European setpieces in Istanbul and Rome are handled competently, but without the flair of a natural action director.

It is a pity that the care taken with the spy-versus-spy plot, involving operative-gone-rogue Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) and a posse of Turks, Italians and Iranians, takes up so much space that there is little room left for fun.

While we're on the topic of what it means to be American, Only The Brave (PG13, 133 minutes, opens today, 2.5/5 stars) deals with the idea of heroism in the line of duty, a subject celebrated often in a Hollywood supposedly run by lefty liberals.

It also suffers from the same absence of imagination that plagues Assassin. This flat, reverential portrait of a real-life firefighting team brings together the actors who define "gruff" - Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin among them - and a few pups such as Miles Teller and, for the second time this week, Kitsch.

They are the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew that controls wildfires when elite help is required.

In spite of its A-list cast, the film's TV movie-of-the-week quality makes this a so-so watch.

Brolin's commanding presence here recalls his work in another adventure biopic, Everest (2015), but this film has nothing on the mood of desperation and doom that permeated that mountain-climbing epic.

There is plenty of desperation in Happy Death Day (PG13, 96 minutes, opens today , 3/5 stars), a cheekily ambitious genre mash-up that combines the time-reset motif of Groundhog Day (1993) with the slasher plot of Scream (1996).

Theresa, or "Tree" (Jessica Rothe) is a sorority girl you love to hate - rich, pretty, status-conscious and disdainful of those without money or looks. One night, a masked killer stabs her to death and to her added horror, her day repeats each time she dies, giving her the chance to foil her own murder.

The good-natured, slightly self-aware and jokey tone is handled well. In contrast, the horror elements are less than well integrated; after a while, everything feels low-stakes and cartoonish.

Still, in this work from Blumhouse Productions - makers of horror-comedy Get Out (2017), Split (2016) and the Purge franchise - director Christopher Landon not only has fun with the high-concept premise, but he also ably turns Theresa from helpless brat to brassy detective in a short period.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Promising ideas short on execution'. Print Edition | Subscribe