September 2023

American Assassin (2017)

DIRECTOR: Michael Cuesta

CAST: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, David Suchet


Based on Vince Flynn’s 2010 novel, one of a series of books following the titular “American Assassin” Mitch Rapp, American Assassin is diverting enough for undemanding fans of the action genre, but doesn’t do anything special to distinguish itself in a crowded genre.  The generic by-the-numbers plot could easily have been lifted from a Tom Clancy novel (in fact, with minor tweaks, it could have easily been a young Jack Ryan adventure), and the movie doesn’t feature any surprising twists or turns or anything we haven’t seen (and seen better) elsewhere.

The movie at least doesn’t waste much time with set-up.  Young American Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is on vacation in Spain with his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega), to whom he successfully proposes.  Minutes later, armed terrorists open fire indiscriminately into the crowd, leaving Katrina dead and Mitch badly injured.  Eighteen months later, Mitch is an edgy, surly loner who is single-mindedly devoted to infiltrating and taking out terrorist cells around the globe, which gets him the attention of CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who selects him for training in a secretive anti-terrorist program presided over by ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton).  Meanwhile, the generic plot unfolds, involving Hurley’s previous star pupil, “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), now a rogue mercenary in cahoots with a cabal of Iranians trying to assemble the components to build a nuclear bomb to destroy Israel.  Despite Hurley’s not unfounded doubts about his readiness, Kennedy dispatches Mitch with Hurley’s small team to Istanbul, where they are joined by Iranian secret agent Annika (Shiva Negar) and must find and take out Ghost and his clients before they assemble and detonate the bomb.

Despite having four screenwriters, including Oscar winner Edward Zwick, once responsible for such respectable motion pictures as Glory and Courage Under Fire, American Assassin‘s paint-by-numbers plot leaves no cliche or trope unturned.  There’s the cliched young fledgling agent seeking revenge for the murder of a loved one, whose cliched “talented rebel with a chip on his shoulder” attitude clashes with the cliched hard-boiled mentor figure who gives cliched advice like “never make it personal”.  The villain is a cliched and one-dimensional “former star protege gone rogue” who has a cliched motivation about pseudo-Daddy issues and wanting revenge on his ex-boss for leaving him to rot when a mission went sour (kind of like a shallow poor relation of Skyfall‘s Silva).  Of course, the rookie gets thrown into an urgent mission before he’s ready, and of course this all climaxes in a race against the clock.  The movie gives some shallow lip service to the danger of being consumed by revenge, and less-than-subtle parallels are drawn between Mitch and Ghost, but these half-hearted themes aren’t developed enough to mean anything. Indeed, about the only mildly surprising thing might be that Mitch and Annika don’t fall into bed, which usually seems all but inevitable in these kinds of movies.

That said, the movie isn’t unwatchable, just uninspired and nothing we haven’t seen before.  There’s a kind of nifty training sequence where Hurley rapid-fire flashes a bunch of faces of targets for Mitch and the other trainees to memorize, and then they have to sift through holographic crowds via VR visors, and receive an electric shock if they get shot or shoot the wrong person.  There’s another moment where Hurley uses Mitch’s old home video of his proposal to Katrina to taunt him into a reckless move that teaches him a lesson about attacking in anger.  The fight scenes are relatively brutal (spurting head-shots) and there’s a cringey torture sequence involving ripped-out fingernails and a blowtorch.  Alas, for as much talking as the movie does about Mitch’s test results being “off the charts” and other such cliched dialogue meant to inform us he’s a young prodigy, it never really convinces us, and neither the good guys nor bad guys especially convince us of their skills like better movies of this type are able to do.  Dylan O’Brien doesn’t really have the makings of a bad-ass action hero, even a fledgling one, and the hand-to-hand fight scenes aren’t on the level of ferocity of the likes of Jason Bourne or Atomic Blonde that they seem to aspire toward.  If it’s Bourne versus Mitch Rapp (at least the movie version), my money is firmly on Bourne.

One feels this might have gone direct-to-DVD if it hadn’t had Dylan O’Brien (a relatively hot young star by virtue of the Teen Wolf TV series and the Maze Runner film franchise) and Michael Keaton (who’s recently been an Oscar nominee and a Spider-Man villain) on-hand, but the actors don’t really do anything special.  O’Brien never quite comes across as a bad-ass, and his Mitch has basically one mode of surly brooding.  At one time, Chris Hemsworth was offered $10 million to play Mitch Rapp, but declined due to scheduling conflicts (likely too busy playing Thor), leaving one to wonder how different Hemsworth’s version might have been.  As the shallowly-developed, shallowly-motivated Ghost, Taylor Kitsch is as bland and generic as bad guys come.  The two women in the cast, Sanaa Lathan and Shiva Negar, don’t make much of an impression, and David Suchet gets a small walk-on role as the CIA Director.  The closest to a standout, unsurprisingly, is Michael Keaton, who’s one of those actors who always seems to be enjoying himself (perhaps even more so these days after his post-Birdman career revival), and seems at home in the role of the hard-nosed mentor (a role to which Bruce Willis was once attached).

There’s not much to say about American Assassin.  Beginning to end, it’s assembled cookie cutter style out of bits and pieces and cliches and tropes we’ve all seen before, and never veers away from them to do anything surprising.  Those seeking a no-frills action movie at the theater might find it an adequate diversion, but there are better viewing options, and while it might provide a momentary distraction, it’s unlikely to last long in the memory.

* * 1/2