Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp novels are the kind of books your dad picks up at the airport ahead of a long flight. Potboiling espionage thrillers, they read like Tom Clancy light. (They feel more like they’re written by someone who reads a lot of spy novels rather than someone who actually knows anything about that world.) Similarly, Michael Cuesta’s big screen adaptation of Flynn’s 2010 American Assassin—there are currently more than a dozen books in the series—feels like diet Jason Bourne. This potential franchise starter has Bourne envy, big time.
Not without certain charms, though they’re few and far between, American Assassin treads familiar territory. It attempts to distinguish itself from the pack of imitators by being unflinchingly violent, more than a touch mean-spirited, and ruthless to its characters. Mind you, it doesn’t succeed, but it tries. I guess that’s something.
Essentially an origin story for what Lionsgate hopes will be an ongoing hero, American Assassin traces the beginnings of counterterrorist extraordinaire Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, The Maze Runner). When the 23-year-old’s girlfriend dies in a terrorist attack, he takes a deep dive in the revenge pool. After showing what he can do, and the lengths he’s willing to go to, the CIA Deputy Director (Sanaa Lathan) recruits him into an elite black ops unit headed by cranky veteran covert operator Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). There’s an extended training period that culminates in Rapp—who, of course, has his own motives and plays by his own rules—in the midst of a convoluted subplot involving one of Hurley’s former protégés (Taylor Kitsch), the Middle East, and a homemade nuke.
The action scenes are unremarkable. Hand to hand fight scenes are cut to ribbons, which belies the actor’s modest combat skills. Though it completely wastes the presence of Scott Adkins (Boyka: Undisputed—seriously, Hollywood, stop squandering one of the best action performers in the world—it is fun to watch Michael Keaton wreck dudes in streamlined, efficient ways. Cuesta and cinematographer Enrique Chediak (Deepwater Horizon, Europa Report) thankfully eschew the shaky-cam aesthetic early on, settling on a functional, workmanlike visual style.
For an action movie, American Assassin too often becomes boring as hell. Moments designed to be tense and thrilling rarely accomplish those goals. And it hits all the typical “spy thriller” markers—the hero doing it his own way, but getting results; telegraphed betrayals and twists and turns; a mole making an obvious mistake at exactly the point where the mole always makes an obvious mistake; and even a sexy wound treating scene—which gives the whole movie a cookie cutter feel.
At a certain point, you get the impression the filmmakers threw up their hands said, “Fuck it,” and let loose. And while it doesn’t wholly redeem American Assassin, the back half has an entertaining unhinged quality previous portions lack. Michael Keaton goes full-on bananas in a way he hasn’t on-screen for years—we’re talking manic, coked-up ‘80s Keaton. And he and Kitsch have an epic throw down of overacting one-upmanship in the midst of a vicious torture session that’s brutal and wild. Overall, it’s still utterly forgettable, but maybe worth a few minutes of distraction if you stumble across the final act on cable—though with the violence and swearing, it’ll all be cut to shit.
In 2017, you might think it’s a problem for a studio to make a movie about a white man with a blind, unquenchable thirst for revenge against brown people. And you’d be right. The first act of American Assassin goes for it with an ‘80s-style jingoist gusto that will likely make you cringe or chant “U.S.A, U.S.A.” in the theater. Early on, Rapp literally sees the face of the terrorist leader responsible for the death of his girlfriend superimposed on every other Middle Eastern villain. And during a VR training exercise that’s supposed to be high tech and cool, but that’s just silly, Hurley takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the recruit with the same image. And Mitch is so dogged he continues to shoot the target despite the fact that every time he does, he receives a crippling jolt of electricity.
American Assassin vaguely tries to have some larger point about imperialism, and it attempts to shift the focus to Kitsch’s character, who bears the uninspired moniker Ghost, to prove that it’s not all about white people killing brown people or all Muslims being terrorists. (Though it very much is both of those things, no matter what limp lip service they provide.)
Dylan O’Brien is charismatic enough in other circumstances, but he never fully sells the broken, damaged vigilante out for blood-thirsty retribution. Worst of all, the character’s simply not interesting; a bland millennial with an axe to grind. It’s difficult to imagine this developing into a franchise. Even with a modest budget of $33 million, I don’t think American Assassin is going to perform well enough that we’re destined to see an endless string of Mitch Rapp movies. And that’s for the best.
And the movie did leave me with some rather large questions about the physics of nuclear detonations, but we’ll let the science nerds fret about that. [Grade: C-]
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