At the Movies with Alan Gekko: American Assassin

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Action-Thriller/ Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Scott Adkins/ Runtime: 111 minutes

I feel it is safe to start this review by stating that when it comes to film genres that have become well-worn territory over the years, and also which Hollywood have shown an increasing willingness to experiment and try new things with I feel that the spy genre is one of the best possible examples you could come up with. Indeed from the 007 films which need no explanation to the slow-burn political intrigue that make up the Jack Ryan films and Amazon TV series, and all the way to the fast-paced, globe-trotting, complex storyline-possessing adventures of Jason Bourne as well as the immensely stylish and well-cast 1980s set love letter that was 2017’s Atomic Blonde there really does seem to be no shortage of what silver screen espionage can accomplish. So it is in this cinematic fold that we get director Michael Cuesta’s film American Assassin which proves to be the latest attempt to bring a literary spy to life on the silver screen. Yet while the film does manage to impress on a technical and performance level, it tragically possesses an emotionally hollow story which turns what could’ve been a great film into a well-acted, and well-made popcorn film and nothing more.

The plot is as follows: American Assassin opens on Mitch Rapp (Teen Wolf or Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien) a young man whose seemingly perfect life is thrown a serious curveball when while vacationing with his girlfriend in a tropical paradise they find themselves tragically caught in the crossfire of an organized mass shooting by a group of fanatical terrorists in an opening scene that honestly is truly brutal and heart-wrenching to watch. So 18 months later we find a Mitch that is nothing short of a broken and obsessed man who, feeling like he has nothing else to live for, has fashioned himself into a seriously Jason Bourne-esque living weapon that’s sole purpose in life is to go after the terrorists who kill the innocent people in this world and then slip back into the shadows never to be caught for their crimes. Eventually however this obsession puts Mitch on the radar of some interesting people primarily CIA agent Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) who, seeing great potential and promise in the young man, exfils and then recruits Rapp into the agency specifically in a black-ops program called Orion under her direction and then sends him to be taught by legendary Cold War warrior Stan Hurley (a wonderfully grouchy and slightly dickish Michael Keaton). Yet while Rapp shows great promise as one of Hurley’s newest prodigies it isn’t long before he soon finds his skills put to the ultimate test when he and Hurley find themselves going up against Ghost (Battleship’s Taylor Kitsch) a mercenary bent on detonating a rogue nuclear weapon who also has an unexpected connection to Hurley…..

Now due to being equal parts Bourne as well as the freakin’ Punisher, American Assassin really truly is an unflinching and often times quite brutal look at the mentality of a shattered young man who manages to find that one way to cope with violence when it has destroyed your life is through more violence. Yet, unlike the books, the problem with how the film depicts the character of Mitch Rapp is that the film rarely if ever takes the time to fully question his actions or his attitude. Of course to be fair Dylan O’Brien does do a good job in the movie, both in the action sequences, as well as the quieter and more dramatic moments. Yet at the same time he still, and quite unfairly I might add, does not get much to chew on when it comes to the nuances of the violence that help to create the man that Rapp eventually becomes. So due to this spectacular lack of focus on the main character, we constantly get a character that while they do feel and act rough and abrasive it’s in a way that, unlike a more three-dimensional main character, doesn’t feel earned in the slightest.

Plus it’s not like the film is unaware of these ideas that I’m talking about because Michael Keaton’s Stan Hurley manages to even talk about how there’s truly a fine line between killing out of a sense of patriotism and killing because it is fun. Rather than roll with what could’ve been something insightful however, the film just never really dives into that idea in a meaningful way. Instead the film makes Rapp simply right a little too often, and never forces him to question who exactly he has turned himself into. The same applies to the fact that while there is clearly meant to be a juxtaposition between Rapp and Ghost as the film builds to the final showdown. Yet American Assassin still shies away from asking hard questions about the irony that can be found aplenty in the fact that Rapp’s anti-terrorist training is sending him up against someone other than the Middle East-based extremists that he prepared to fight. So all in all instead of a legitimately compelling character study about a man that is hell-bent on revenge as well as a story that comes equipped with real, gripping, and personal stakes that the audience can really truly be invested in, we instead find ourselves left with yet another globetrotting tale of good guys trying to stop bad guys from doing something bad as well as the usual series of unnecessary double and triple crosses that find themselves shoehorned into this otherwise straightforward plot.

Luckily for audiences American Assassin definitely does impresses as far as the technical aspects of filmmaking are concerned. This is because, the action sequences this film provides are truly brutal and intense in every way and it is also clear, unlike some action films of late, that star O’Brien is truly committed to every single scene that he is in. Indeed in this post-Bourne era of rapid-fire action editing, American Assassin does a commendable and pretty dang good job of keeping the camera rolling for surprisingly long takes (with the heartbreaking and not to mention plausible opening attack receiving notice here) as it shows off not only just how great of a job the technical departments on this film did, but also just how fast and agile O’Brien is. Indeed if there is one thing that American Assassin should accomplish during its time in theaters, it should be to help the rest of Hollywood figure out that Mr. O’Brien is far better suited for these intense action movie roles than we in the film community had previously given him credit for.

Also speaking of Dylan O’Brien I also feel that, in additional to being technically impressive, this film also definitely benefits from the fact that O’Brien and, the always dependable for a good performance (except in Jack Frost, but I think even HE knows that) Michael Keaton, who in this gets to show off his always welcome Beetlejuice side in some scenes, are a truly good screen combo. This is because not only do they manage to match machismo and intensity whenever the film allows them to, but also despite the fact that they don’t have much in the way of traditional chemistry. However this is the kind of film where they’re not supposed to as Rapp and Hurley really don’t like each other all that much. Despite that though this film really works when it is smart enough to just put these 2 in a room together and just forget about almost everything. Yet the film isn’t smart enough to do that nearly enough as it should due to the plot constantly jumping from one spot on the globe to the next and so they are rarely given the time to be in the same room for very long.

As for the rest of the cast they all, with one exception, do fine enough work for the kind of role they are playing. However as stated above, one exception is Taylor Kitsch as the film’s main villain. This is because Kitsch is really truly forgettable in the role. I mean this is the kind of role that, rather than a pretty face, you need an actor who can be intense yet slimy and enjoyable to watch, like James Woods who I would’ve loved to see play this role and could’ve easily in his sleep in his younger days. Sadly however, Kitsch honestly just can’t bring that level of intensity and so what could’ve been a great villain just becomes nothing more than a caricature that we just want to see disposed of by film’s end so we have something to cheer about before we leave the theater.

All in all it may be light on plot and heavy on action, but American Assassin still manages to mostly succeed as a fun little popcorn film thanks to terrific action sequences and fine acting work from Michael Keaton and Dylan O’Brien. Indeed while everything and everyone else in this otherwise run of the mill spy caper seems to either run on Dunkin’ or autopilot, but mostly autopilot, these 2 still manage to bring all of their established skill and commitment together to help make this more of a fun ride than it ought to be. On a scale of 1-5 I give American Assassin a 3 out of 5.