Film Review – American Assassin
American Assassin (2017) feels like it belongs to a bygone era. It has the makings of a Cold War spy thriller with its rebellious hero and international terrorists. We even get the luxury of the classic nuclear bomb that our protagonist must disable before the clock ticks down to zero. Why do movie bombs always have timers? It’s ridiculous when you think about it logically. Why would a terrorist set up a bomb to explode in twenty minutes, especially a nuclear bomb? Is that enough time for them to escape out of the blast radius? What if they get stuck in traffic?
This is James Bond level espionage. No matter what the storyline is or what kind of characters are involved, the suspense always boils down to a madman wanting to make something go “boom.” American Assassin is no different in what it wants to do. But unlike the best modern day thrillers (Skyfall (2012) and the Bourne series, to name of a few) this doesn’t establish itself well enough to stand out. Directed by Michael Cuesta with a host of writers (Stephen Schiff/Michael Finch/Edward Zwick/Marshall Herskovitz, adapted from Vince Flynn’s novel), what we end up getting is a film that knows the tropes but lacks the identity. Rather, it infuses the material with jingoistic testosterone, hoping that its macho-ness is enough to get by.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Sylvester Stallone made careers from flexing their muscles and shooting countless bad guys. But those two were major movie stars, with the ability to carry a project with their charisma alone. That element is sadly missing here. Dylan O’Brien is a competent performer; he doesn’t commit any missteps playing the role of sullen and brooding Mitch Rapp. The issue is that he is simply too young. At twenty six, O’Brien still possesses boyish good looks, no matter how long he grows his facial hair. This is problematic when he tries to display his character’s insubordinate nature. Every time his CIA superiors tell him do something, Mitch does the exact opposite. When he’s ordered to fall back while in pursuit of enemies, Mitch pushes further ahead, and when he’s reprimanded for it, he responds with the attitude of a petulant child. The character calls for the persona of a Clint Eastwood, and unfortunately O’Brien has yet to age into that position.
The person who actually possesses that ability is Michael Keaton. Keaton plays Stan Hurley, a veteran CIA operative who’s assigned to take on youngsters as his pupils. Stan is hard edged, and doesn’t take any crap from anybody, even from his CIA director (Sanaa Lathan). Out of the entire cast, Keaton is easily having the most fun. He chews up scenery like bubble gum, pushing his performance up just enough to get laughs without being too over the top. He also gets the most interesting character arc. We learn that one of Stan’s former students (Taylor Kitsch) has gone rogue, and may possibly be involved with recent attacks. This sets up a nice little inner turmoil for Stan, who partially blames himself for not being able to reach this person before they turned bad. We don’t get too far deep into character work, mind you, but there’s enough from Stan to keep us invested in what happens to him. He is the film’s saving grace.
There isn’t much to the plot that we haven’t seen before: a lot of globetrotting, plenty of twists and turns, a few double crosses, etc. Cuesta’s direction opts to keep things fairly straightforward, going through the familiar steps of the genre. It’s this safe approach that makes American Assassin feel generic. We sense this from the opening scene, where we see Mitch proposing to his girlfriend while on a tropical getaway. The construction of the scene is confusing, with Mitch proposing in the middle of the ocean while recording the whole thing on his phone. With the overly bright lighting and goofy tone, the scene feels disingenuous. Our suspicions are confirmed when we realize that this was only meant to set us up for the heartbreak that follows immediately after, setting Mitch’s motivation to hunt down and take out known terrorists.
When we examine what drives Mitch to go on his self-induced mission against terrorist cells, we find that there was a major opportunity to really dig into his mentality. Although the opening scene is silly and transparent in what it’s doing, it allows us the chance to understand Mitch from an emotional perspective. Hate is often bred through pain and loss, and seeing Mitch go through his grieving process while tracking his targets would’ve made for a fascinating character study. Would he be able to reconcile his feelings even though he’s put into a position where he could deliver violent revenge on anyone he feels deserves it? Alas, the film isn’t interested in being that insightful.
Maybe I expected too much. For those of you looking for something to pass the time, American Assassin might prove to be the distraction you’re looking for. But for those that are hoping to get something more, you’ll most likely come away disappointed.