Why The 'American Assassin' Adaptation Focuses On The Terrorists At Home Instead Of Abroad

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As with any book-to-movie adaptation, American Assassin won't be an exact retelling of Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp prequel novel. One of the biggest changes from the page to the screen is when the story takes place. Fans of the New York Times' best-selling spy thriller know that, in the book, American Assassin takes place in the '80s and '90s, but the film (in theaters Sept. 15) is now set in modern times. While that seems like a move made with production in mind to save money using current sets and props instead of making everything vintage, it actually allows the movie to grow creatively and get political in new — and responsible — ways.

The decision to change up when the movie was set was made so the potential action movie franchise can rip from the headlines and tell stories about current US enemies and threats. And the first one shines a light on an issue that desperately needs attention: homegrown terrorism. While the movie begins with a focus on a stereotypical foreign terrorist, it soon becomes clear that the real villain of the story is something so much more real... and relevant.

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Spoilers from the film follow: American Assassin stars Dylan O'Brien as the iconic Mitch Rapp, a CIA black ops recruit, working with Cold War vet Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to try and stop a World War in the Middle East. Which all sounds pretty cookie cutter when it comes to spy thrillers, until it's revealed that a white American ex-operative named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) is actually the one behind it all.

In a time when domestic terrorism is heightened, and government officials in the highest of offices still seemingly refuse to talk about white supremacists in the same way they are so quick to condemn Islamic terrorists, it's about time Hollywood starts getting real about what's really happening in the world. And O'Brien, sitting down with Bustle at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills to promote American Assassin, is thrilled to be part of a project that will inspire real conversations about this current issue.

"I think that's an integral part of the world that we're trying to shed light on, what the world deals with today," he says. "It's not a black and white thing as some people have always labeled it as. When people get afraid, they want to assign blame to a specific group of people or a specific region of the world. What we're dealing with right now is so far removed from any of that, so I think it was important in this movie to shed light on that aspect of current events."

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O'Brien didn't want to do just another action movie. He wanted to do something with purpose. If people are entertained, that's great, but if people finally start talking about domestic terrorism, that's even better.

"Today, where terrorism is at in the world, it's more of an ambiguous thing than some people think it is – some people, like, you know … the president," he adds with a rueful laugh.

In fact, the twist that Ghost is the real villain of the story is the reason why Kitsch signed on to play him.

"It's non-cliche, yeah," Kitsch says as he takes a sip of water. "I loved that [twist], just how personal it was. That's the difference between so many of these [movies]. That was so interesting to explore. Hopefully it provokes a couple thoughts in you. It's intense."

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While Kitsch knows that "obviously it's fiction," they all made sure to keep their characters, even his psychologically-damaged terrorist, grounded.

"Unfortunately it's very relevant in that sense," he says. "It's not glorifying anything. We go deep in the trenches of what it means to be these guys. These guys are in their own personal hell for so much of the movie. I didn't want to overreach and have it become a caricature or stereotypical. It's way more intimate of what these guys go through."  

But O'Brien is quick to reassure that they're not trying to get on a soapbox with American Assassin. "The movie doesn't have a political agenda," he promises. "But what was really important for all of us involved was that when dealing with this subject matter, because it is so current, because it is such an unfortunately topical thing right now, that we do it in the most responsible way possible."

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That meant getting it painstakingly right. "Being correct with the facts, really, and neutrally presenting this world that is the state of the world and what we're dealing with right now," O'Brien says. "That was always a big part of it for me. Early on, that was one of my main concerns and something I wanted to make sure that I'd be supported with too, and that's how we'd be trying to do things."

While he's excited for audiences to see the result of all their hard work, he knows that this kind of twist could get mixed reactions from people.

"It will be interesting to see what people think," O'Brien says. "Everyone interprets everything in their own way. It's easy to think, even just with the title and the trailers, people could be looking at this as some sort of propaganda, which it's not. I hope that all that comes across, and it's more a neutral and realistic depiction of terrorism today."

No matter how people react to the movie itself, the sheer fact that American Assassin is addressing something so wide-reaching and seldom talked about like homegrown terrorism is already a step in the right direction.