‘Murrica, sum bitches!
Cast of Characters:
Mitch Rapp – Dylan O’Brien
Stan Hurley – Michael Keaton
Deputy Director Irene Kennedy – Sanaa Lathan
Annika – Shiva Negar
Ghost – Taylor Kitsch
Stansfield – David Suchet
Behurz – Navid Negahban
Victor – Scott Adkins
Director – Michael Cuesta
Screenplay – Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz
Based on the novel American Assassin by Vince Flynn
Producer – Lorenzo di Bonaventura & Nick Wechsler
Rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language and brief nudity
Following the death of his fiancée during a mass shooting in Ibiza on the day of their engagement, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) vows to get revenge on the terrorists responsible. After over a year of preparation, his quest for vengeance is intervened by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who’s been monitoring his every move all that time. Believing his skills could be put to better use, Kennedy places him in a black-ops program run by the no-nonsense Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Though initially reluctant, Hurley begins integrating Rapp into his physically and psychologically demanding program.
When a potentially deadly situation in Iran arises, Hurley, Rapp and the rest of their team are sent overseas to work with Turkish agent Annika (Shiva Negar) in preventing this impending disaster. However, a wrench is thrown into the gears when Hurley’s team runs into a mysterious arms dealer named “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), whose long and dark history with the CIA puts Rapp in a precarious position.
Tom Clancy had Jack Ryan; Vince Flynn, aka Tom Clancy on steroids, had Mitch Rapp. Based on the late political thriller novelist’s novel of the same name, American Assassin is much more shredded, “Oorah!!!!” shouting version of Jason Bourne that couldn’t get any more machismo, bleed red, white and blue American even if you draped an American flag cape across its hero’s back, perched a flat-topped bald eagle named “Killer” on his shoulder and straddled a big-titted, bikini-clad biker babe named Betsy Ross across his Harley.
A Harley that shoots flames set in rhythm to Kid Rock’s “American Bad Ass” out of the exhaust , and has good ole fashioned, “Made in America” sparklers strapped to the handlebars.
We’ve seen this type of film before and we’ll see it again: the young CIA/military prodigy whose test results are “off the charts” but is deemed “untrainable” due to their obsessive drive to avenge a past trauma. While Hollywood’s churned out these sort of films by the thousands, often to generic results, it’s not impossible to make a smart, compelling version. The aforementioned Bourne franchise did it exceptionally well, and John Milius – a great writer/director who’s been called upon by Oscar-level filmmakers Steven Spielberg (Jaws), Sydney Pollack (Jeremiah Johnson) and Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) to punch up their scripts – could take this type of actioner and turn it into grade-A entertainment. The question here is whether American Assassin rises above the pack or just settles for being another ho-hum action flick.
The Good: You gotta hand it to Michael Keaton. The man rarely does wrong, energizing even his worst pictures, at least on his end, and he’s been rocking his post-Birdman, Oscar-nominated comeback like a boss. No matter how clunky the dialogue here may be, Keaton spits out lines like “The enemy dresses like deer… and he kills like a lion” with enough gruff, no bull shit panache to make you overlook just how overbearingly dumb a line like that is. Stan Hurley is easily the most interesting character in the film, thanks to what Keaton brings to him. This may definitely be a “paycheck film” for him, but he doesn’t disappoint.
Director Michael Cuesta is wading in new genre territory here, having previously directed the coming-of-age dramas L.I.E., and 12 and Holding, the comedy Roadie, political thriller Kill the Messenger and TV series Six Feet Under and Dexter. Despite what little experience he may have with this genre, however, following the opening set piece, I became certain I was in store for one hell of a taut action-thriller. Turning a beautiful, serene Ibiza setting into a bullets-flying, blood-splattering, modern-day terrorist nightmare, Cuesta creates a terrifying sequence that delivers a vivid, visceral gut-punch.
The Bad: Unfortunately, following that great opening sequence, something happened… the rest of the film happened. American Assassin wants to have its cake and eat it too by being a graphic revenge thriller that also wants to have something to say about geopolitical affairs, but it ultimately fails at both endeavors. Save the thrilling opening sequence, Cuesta stages the remaining action flatly and unappealingly, lacking the style and vitality needed to pass as a pulpy actioner, and the script – credited to four screenwriters – lacks the intelligence and nuance needed to effectively say anything in regard to post-9/11 world affairs.
Also a problem is Cuesta’s confusing shift in scale. The film opens with tightly constructed action set pieces and hand-to-hand combat sequences, but come the third-act, it shifts to overdrive with an absurd, CGI-driven disaster climax that makes Roland Emmerich look like an Alexander Payne dramedy.
While Dylan O’Brien is a capable actor, it’s really hard to buy him as a gritty, revenge-fueled protagonist here. To be sure, he’s not as underused as his veteran co-stars Sanaa Lathan and David Suchet are playing his superiors, and his character is such a vague, personality-less blank with barely any backstory that the blame should be passed more onto Cuesta and the writers (when I said Keaton’s Hurley is the film’s most interesting character, I meant to say the only interesting character). Still, O’Brien fails to earn any genuine sympathy or rooting interest in an effort that is mostly underwhelming (even with his fiancée being brutally gunned down in the opening act). His scenes opposite Keaton do generate a little bit excitement, but that’s mainly thanks to Keaton.
The Ugly: O’Brien may be underwhelming, but Taylor Kitsch says “hold my beer” from the moment his terrible former-protégé-turned-nuke-seeking-villain first appears onscreen. Though his character is supposedly tortured and troubled, Kitsch is unable to provide “Ghost” with the embittered menace he needs, and comes off as a leftover Bond villain that’s been scraped out of the bottom of the 007 reject bin. His crowning moment of sinister eloquence comes when he sells some nuclear triggers to Iranians and gleefully tells them, and I quote, “Now you can kill as many Jews as you want.”
Yes… word for word… move over, Hannibal Lecter.
Consensus: Though there are periodic flashes of inspired action, and a strong Michael Keaton performance is another of the far too few reasons you may be able to stay awake during this film, American Assassin lacks the style and (or) substance required to be an effective geopolitical action-thriller, and instead settles for being a dull retread of far more superior efforts of its kind.
Silver Screen Fanatic’s Verdict: I give American Assassin a D+ (★½).