American Assassin (2017)

“I am prepared to die a martyr.”

At first introduction, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is a man in love. He smiles, proposes to his disarming girlfriend out in the Mediterranean Sea, jogs up to the bar and asks for extra strong specialty drinks to celebrate. Things are going as planned. Then jihadi terrorists suddenly storm the beach to rain fire on the American tourists. Bodies fall like dominoes. Rapp takes two bullets and has to witness his fiancée of five minutes be murdered right in front of his face. We see a change in his eyes. For however corny and openly xenophobic this first scene is, it at least gives the lead character a personal vendetta to avenge for the remainder of the film. It imparts a bit of motivation and purpose, whereas the rest of American Assassin bogs itself down in incoherent political dealings and spy-game drama. I wish this movie hadn’t tried to be smart, mostly because that’s the area where it fails to pass the test.

Fast-forward 18 months and Rapp is now a candidate for a black ops team known as “Orion” at the suggestion of CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). She sees hope in his off-the-charts testing; team leader Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) sees a young man who can’t harness his emotions. You can probably guess who gets their way. So naturally we head to the required training sequences, which are well-done, a little unremarkable, and full of red herrings that come up in the film’s third act. That is, sadly, how a lot of this film unfolds. I expect a lot of audiences to feel comfortable with and to even be entertained by American Assassin because it hardly does or tries anything new. The picture delivers enough of a similar taste derived from far better movies to satisfy most summer moviegoers. As for me, I saw as much potential for enjoyment as I experienced an uninteresting redundancy.

Some awkward scenes are in place solely to establish Rapp’s unwillingness to follow orders or to fall in rank although we already know that he’s a bad-boy and that he’s different; the characters literally say and suggest this, which makes me think Michael Cuesta’s film would have been better had it cut these segments and handled its post 9/11 anti-terrorism political commentary with an inkling of subtlety. We already have the villainous “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch as a former protégé of Hurley’s) in place to serve as the bad guy with a bomb and a deadly agenda. There are already personal stakes in play. This adaptation of Vince Flynn’s character Mitch Rapp almost seems like it’d have been better suited as something in the likeness of the 1994 Jan de Bont film Speed. Unlike that classic, American Assassin allows itself to get caught up in conspiracy instead of being forced to act on impulse (which, when this movie does, it succeeds in a surprisingly visceral fashion.) Its trigger finger is distracted by too many targets.

I’m a fan of O’Brien and see a lot of promise in his wide-ranging skill set. That he can believably play a wannabe Jason Bourne here and be charmingly unpracticed in the ways of sex in 2012’s The First Time says a lot about his talent. He’s got the looks and charisma and the physicality to be an action franchise star. Unfortunately, American Assassin just doesn’t have the overall execution or that new twist on old material to elevate this arsenal of actors into a film deserving of a sequel. O’Brien is good, Keaton is good, Kitsch is good, Lathan is good. A few too many pieces of this movie are just barely good enough (including a handful of decently choreographed action sequences). As an overall film though, American Assassin lacks finesse and bridging story beats, and is way more of a hard punch to the gut than an adrenaline filled kill shot executed with guerrilla tactics.

“You let emotion cloud your judgement. Never, ever let it get personal.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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