Based on Vince Flynn’s series of novels (and on the book of the same name, the 11th in the series, in particular), American Assassin is the story of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) a young man who, after enduring a horrific personal tragedy decides to take matters into his own hands and seek revenge on international terrorists. Of course, this puts him on the radar of the CIA, who recruit the burgeoning vigilante and put him to work with one of their own, as they discover a plot to start a nuclear war involving stolen plutonium, corrupt Iranian politicians, and rogue agents.
O’Brien makes for a convincing action hero, and the majority of the film’s fight and chase scenes are competently (if not inventively) staged. The character of Mitch Rapp is apparently beloved among readers (I have to confess, I’m not familiar with the source material), and it’s probably easier to get inside his head on the page than it is on the screen. Still, in the movie’s early acts, O’Brien imbues Rapp with a deliberately unfriendly intensity as he puts himself through his paces on his quest to become a self-made assassin, and that’s when American Assassin is at its best.
Michael Keaton delivers another fine “latter day Michael Keaton” performance, as Stan Hurley, a grizzled CIA veteran who now trains the most covert of covert ops agents. It’s not the most layered of roles but Keaton is sufficiently convincing as a mean old bastard and he’s able to elevate some of the script’s shortcomings with his presence. He even gets to bust out his Beetlejuice voice at the most unexpected of times. The same can’t be said of Taylor Kitsch’s villainous “Ghost” who, through no fault of his own, is saddled with dialogue that shouldn’t have made it past the first draft as well as the thinnest of “movie bad guy” motivations. Despite enlisting Scott Adkins for a small role, the film gives him remarkably little fighting to do, which kind of defeats the point of putting a badass like Scott Adkins in your movie.
Early in the movie, when the violence is supposed to appear spontaneous in order to drive home the random brutality of a terrorist attack or the shock and awe surprise of a special forces raid, it’s quite effective. But whatever goodwill the movie earns in its first half is squandered in its second. What starts off as a convincing, genuinely tense origin story for Rapp gets lost along the way with a series of standard shaky-cam close quarter brawls that have their moments, but never manage to sufficiently distinguish themselves. Even the promising intensity that O’Brien brings to Rapp early on turns into something a little more petulant as he’s restricted by government convention. I realize that Rapp is supposed to be an “at all costs/lone wolf/loose cannon” kind of agent, but I can’t imagine that this was the desired effect.
Director Michael Cuesta is in familiar territory, having helmed true-life thriller Kill the Messenger in 2014, and a number of episodes of the first season of Homeland, and he certainly gets the shadowy world Rapp and friends operate in. But the movie culminates in an unpleasant, dull climax complete with some surprisingly awful CGI that stands out for a movie so otherwise grounded. There are five writers credited here, including Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who gave us Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and The Last Samurai, among others, but the script is often lifeless, and I wonder if this all contributes to the inconsistency of tone from the first half to the second.
American Assassin at times has the necessary ingredients to make it the kind of fun, pulpy political thriller/action movie that audiences feasted on in the 1990s, but it manages to forget to have any fun at all along the way. While there’s certainly franchise potential in O’Brien’s Mitch Rapp (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what the studio is hoping for), American Assassin seems unlikely to get that particular hope off the ground.
American Assassin opens on September 15th.