5 out of 10
Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp
Michael Keaton as Stan Hurley
Sanaa Lathan as Irene Kennedy
Shiva Negar as Annika
Taylor Kitsch as Ghost
Scott Adkins as Victor
David Suchet as Director Stansfield
Joseph Long as General Rostami
Mohammad Bakri as Ashani
Navid Negahban as Minister Behurz
Khalid Laith as Sharif
Charlotte Vega as Katrina
Shahid Ahmed as Adnan Al-Mansur
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Action movies are so simple to make that they’re impossible, right? Take a moody, repressed hero, some generic socially-accepted villain groups (drug dealers and terrorists are always good in a pinch) and an over-the-top villain or mentor (or both!) to counteract the hero’s woodenness and stick it in a blender. Maybe a dash of dead girlfriend or wife to give the hero some personal stakes for his world saving. [No one has yet been brave enough to go for dead wife AND girlfriend]. What comes out won’t be too different from the stuff you get at the smoothie place – bland, most harmless stuff of dubious nutritional value that all seems the same no matter what flavor you ordered.
Mitch Rapp (O’Brien) is the interchangeable hero of the day in American Assassin. After seeing his fiancée (Vega) killed right in front of him by a terrorist cell, Rapp finds a new calling in life, renouncing his WASPish ways and transforming himself into a one-man war on terrorists. And it turns out he has a natural proclivity for the work, so much so that when he gets in the way of a CIA operation instead of getting arrested, he is offered a job as one of their specialized, off-the-books killers. Sent to killer school under the tutelage of the Company’s best operator (Keaton), Rapp’s personal baggage keeps getting in his and everyone else’s way and at the worst possible time. A mercenary (Kitsch) has gotten his hands on a black market nuclear weapon and is threatening to sell it to Iran.
All the ingredients are right there in the headline for a pointless action movie and director Michael Cuesta is a competent enough chef that he delivers exactly what he’s threatening to. To be fair, nothing in American Assassin is his fault. The action is fluid, the framing and cuts are tight keeping geography clear without sacrificing pace. Some of the performances are far better than this type of film normally gets – especially Keaton – and the score by Steven Price is fantastic. It’s layered, moody and wasted here, destined to be overlooked in place of music on better films, which is too bad. Generally films have to be considered good as a whole before their internal pieces start getting consideration, which unfortunately buries a lot of good work under really, really bad scripts. Or mediocre ones in American Assassin’s case which has a lot of people staring at computer screens and demanding to know where someone is now! and such like. The only thing strange or remarkable about it is that some of it was written by the creators of thirtysomething.
Not that this can’t work, plenty of actors have made entire careers out of this kind of stuff. But when the script exists as only a collection of tropes to get from set piece to set piece, there had better be some pretty impressive charisma in front of the lens and that’s not be had from O’Brien. He’s good looking enough and has a fan base from his Teen Wolf and Maze Runner work, but that’s not going to make a descent into a single-minded mania for killing bad guys in order to fill up a festering internal wound seem interesting or believable. At some level, the filmmakers realize it too, which is why they heap most of that work on Keaton’s shoulders and he throws himself into Hurley, holding back just enough to suggest the real danger lurking inside the man. As is typical for this kind of movie, you end up thinking ‘I’d much rather just watch a movie about that guy,’ but the requirement for a handsome young couple to be involved somehow keeps that from happening, leaving us with far more scenes of O’Brien and Shiva Negar as a helpful spy with damage of her own than we want or need.
There is probably a lot more than can be said about how movies like this reflect on the times they are made, from the Cold War and post-Vietnam drenched films of the ’80s to the drug war focused ’90s shoot-em-ups to stuff like Assassin, which pits its heroes against both generic terrorist forces and the monsters we make to fight them suggesting a really troubling level of both xenophobia and paranoia. Not that Assassin is particularly concerned with the larger cultural forces it is part of, it really just wants to get through the day. Nor would it hold the weight of such analysis.
All is not lost for anyone having to watch this movie or be in it. Taylor Kitsch once went through the same growing pains O’Brien is stuck in before reaching the point where he can be the next best thing about Assassin as its wild-eyed villain. Everyone knows the devil gets the best lines and freed of the moroseness of the typical hero he gets to be fun on screen and let us have brief moments where we have fun, too. Maybe one day O’Brien will get to play a villain, too, but until then he and we have to suffer through some more of these.