An updated version of the novel, American Assassin follows Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) as he loses his fiancé thanks to an Islamist terrorist cell invading the beaches of Spain where the two had been holidaying. Bound for vengeance, the unruly Rapp works hard to increase his skill set, improving his skills in hand to hand combat, firearm use and the Arabic language. The CIA, led by Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) have been watching him though and see potential in him as an agent. Rapp is recruited and sent off to train with the no nonsense Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) and the duo is soon sent off on a mission to stop Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), a former student of Hurley gone rogue, who is intent on starting a new war in the Middle East.
One of the biggest problems of American Assassin is that it never feels like it lives up to the ideas it sets up. The idea of Mitch going after the Islamist cell is a good one, as he clearly has dark yet sympathetic motivations on the table and it would be interesting to see him struggle to see whether or not he remains a true hero following his actions as he gives into the dark thoughts around him. Certainly the cell could have been a more fleshed out organisation but they instead get unceremoniously wiped out by the CIA after the first fifteen minutes of the film and we move onto Ghost being the primary threat of the film. Additionally we really could have delved more into the psyche of Rapp becoming desensitised by the training of Hurley and how Hurley’s training is essentially turning him into the same sort of figure as Ghost – the character does mock Hurley at one point in the film. But again it doesn’t really go anywhere and all we’re left with is a really generic spy action film. When the mission begins the film really slides downhill, going into routine spy movie territory, with Ghost’s plot being a convoluted plan that bumbles along in stature and feels annoyingly inconsistent – this leads to a serious lack of thrills in American Assassin.
This is only made worse by the poor action. The film tries to mask its shortcomings in the action department by ramping up the blood and gore significantly (to the point where the film has an 18 rating in the UK for ‘sadistic violence’). There’s lots of blood spurts, a few scenes of torture and even a moment where a mook is killed and his blood squirts all over the camera lens. Whilst this is all fine and dandy it doesn’t plaster over the fact that the rest of the action is rubbish, subpar Jason Bourne-esque fight scenes with an overabundance of shaky cam in an effort to make things more exciting. The nadir though is a scene near the climax that is shot mostly in the dark, which makes the film even more incomprehensible as you can scarcely tell who’s fighting who. The one bright spot of American Assassin is the acting. O’Brien gives a very intense performance as Rapp, a man who lost everything but found a new purpose with his anti-heroic mission. This is a clear attempt by O’Brien to move into a more mature franchise and he does it rather well. Keaton meanwhile is absolutely the star of the show as Hurley, playing a man who’s basically deranged in the way that he pushes his students but ultimately has the greater good in mind. Keaton’s performance is in equal parts maddening, funny and badass as he almost channels an R. Lee Ermey spirit to his part. These performance help to inject life into the film and it’s a shame that these talents have been wasted on a film as generic as this.
American Assassin is a frustrating film – the bones for a really exciting espionage thriller with plenty of violence were clearly displayed but it whiffs it by taking the plot down a very hackneyed route that we’ve seen before in many a spy film, squandering so much promise that the film could have had. Though the cast do very well, especially O’Brien and Keaton, they can’t do much to save a film that has no thrills and very poor action scenes that try to disguise themselves by all the blood and gore they use. Ultimately I wouldn’t be too shocked if this is the last time for a good while that we see Mitch Rapp on the big screen.
American Assassin – directed by Michael Cuesta, written by Edward Zwick, Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch and Marshall Herskovitz, produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler, starring Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar and Taylor Kitsch. A CBS Films production, a Lionsgate film