Things start well here. Opening on the sands of a luxurious beach resort, we are quickly introduced to a young couple, a duo clearly in love. He’s Mitch Rapp, the hero of our story, played by Dylan O’Brien. She’s Katrina (Charlotte Vega), his soon to be fiancé. But one excellently-staged action sequence later, and said resort has been shredded by a terrorist attack, with bodies on the sands and Katrina in the waves. It’s an abrupt, gripping and brutal start to a thriller that’s resolutely determined to wear its 18-certificate on its sleeves.
Unfortunately, it’s as good as the film ever gets.
What follows is a spluttering attempt to get another Jack Ryan-style franchise going, that gets bogged down in pretty tepid and muddled storytelling. The book it’s based on is a lot clearer, and with the late Vince Flynn having written plenty of Mitch Rapp stories, there’s no shortage of material to draw on. In fact, the source book to this one – American Assassin – is one of the best in the series. It’s curious, then, just how grinding the screen adaptation is.
In the immediate aftermath of that opening, we follow Rapp over a prolonged period of time – denoted in part by the age-old method of changing facial hair and on-screen text – as he’s recruited by the CIA, who aim to channel his thirst for revenge. We know the drill here: training sequences, then action. Things lift accordingly when he’s put under the watch of been-there-done-that veteran Stan Hurley, played by the always-watchable Michael Keaton. Is Rapp ready for action, though, or is his temperament when it matters still, ultimately, suspect? It matters not as the film’s main plot escalates, where Rapp and Hurley find themselves against terrorists trying to ignite a Middle Eastern war. Very, very vicious terrorists as it happens, who happen to have read the BBFC guidelines for an 18 certificate and know just which buttons to press.
They duly press them.
Notwithstanding the fact that you can’t move in airport bookshops for novels about undercover American agents attempting to stop world-ending plots in the Middle East, it’s still disappointing that the film version of American Assassin never brings much identity to its characters or situation. I can’t work out if it’s the air of the familiar, or the fact that it’s just a pretty flat screen story, that does it the most damage. Either way, as hard as director Michael Cuesta tries to deliver fast, involving action sequences and a sense of dread – even taking us out to the ocean at one stage as he varies up his locations – that sense never makes it off the screen. We’ve seen too much of this before, and at no stage did the enormous stakes ever really come across. World-damaging stakes are great for providing reasoning for characters to do things in a story, but zooming in on something smaller tends to be far more involving and interesting for the audience. That doesn’t happen here.
Countering that, of course Michael Keaton is good. He always is. But his character? A collection of the usual broad strokes, really. Experienced, a hard-line mentor, not convinced by his young charge. O’Brien, meanwhile, has proven he can lead a film franchise with The Maze Runner, but finding a handle on Rapp is a tall order. The problem of having a black ops operative at the heart of the film is they need to be quiet, fast and, well, covert. That presents a challenge to build a film around, and O’Brien plays the character well – I fully got his motivation, and how he went about things – but doesn’t power the movie. Without a fuller ensemble of well-written characters around him, it starts to fall flat.
A disappointment, this. For much of the film’s 112 minute running time – and it feels a good chunk longer than that – the film simply doesn’t spark. Going ultra-violent gives it some distinction in the context of current cinema, but it’s telling that’s being talked about as its key selling point. Sporadically, there are moments of note, and one or two of the training sequences in particular are very well done. But, whilst occasionally impressing, American Assassin looks more destined for a life being browsed past on the Netflix carousel than a movie franchise.