AMERICAN ASSASSIN Review

When you're one of those people that goes to the cinema a lot it is movies such as American Assassin that seem to become the most stale and the most generic the fastest. Of course, to audiences that only see a few movies in theaters every year American Assassin will be a perfectly acceptable piece of action pulp. American Assassin is a film that will no doubt fulfill expectations for those that felt intrigued enough by the trailers to go out and buy a ticket, but while American Assassin is acceptable in terms of technical prowess, some interesting performance choices, and a rather straightforward if not clich├ęd plot it fails to really exceed in any way within the narrow parameters it has given itself to operate and exist within. No doubt hoping to piggy back off the success of last September's secret assassin thriller, The Accountant, American Assassin has neither the intrigue nor the style that picture had, but rather with this adaptation of the Vince Flynn airport novel director Michael Cuesta (the criminally overlooked Kill the Messenger) has settled squarely into middle-of-the-road  territory with a story that isn't afraid to go big, with Cuesta (in his first major studio movie) unfortunately deciding it best to stay as safe as possible. This inherent feeling stay as safe as possible is to be understood in many ways for, by making this a competent action/thriller and little more, Cuesta stood more of a chance to please the general public than he did taking risks and appeasing a few critics. With such a consensus comes a solid return and more opportunity and eventually, more power over ones endeavors. Cuesta is playing by the rules in American Assassin. To the movie's credit, it does subvert a handful of expectations within certain scenarios while never being afraid to flaunt its more brutal aspects, but it also never embraces its own genre for the more exciting aspects that such a genre has to offer. Rather, this is a movie that is given ample opportunity by its genre to do some cool things with the story it is telling, but rather than take advantage of them American Assassin seems to consistently waste each and every one of them.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) and CIA operative Annika (Shiva Negar) stakeout suspects who are dealing in nuclear bomb material.
© 2016 CBS Films Inc. and Lions Gate Films Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The titular character at the heart of all of this is Mitch Rapp (played here by Dylan O'Brien). Rapp has been the star of a number of novels by Flynn, making his debut in 1999's Transfer of Power which functioned as a movie we've seen many times since that novel debuted. In American Assassin we are told Rapp's origin story, but through a set of circumstances that are more accustomed to our modern, post-9/11 world. Upon first meeting Rapp in Cuesta's film screenwriters Michael Finch (Predators) and Stephen Schiff (The Americans) sell us on the fact that Rapp was an orphaned child who came of age and has taken advantage of every opportunity he could thus landing himself at a respectable university and with a girl who is, by all accounts, his dream girl (Charlotte Vega). As he and his beautiful girlfriend vacation in an exotic beach resort where Rapp has plans of proposing to her they are abruptly interrupted when unnamed terrorists open fire on the pedestrians that are doing little more than enjoying their vacations. With writer/director Edward Zwick and his frequent collaborator/screenwriter Marshall Herskovitz having also recently tackled similarly-styled material in the Jack Reacher sequel it seemed CBS Films and Lionsgate thought it a good idea to bring them in on the writing process of this film as well which would somewhat explain the kind of drastic shift not necessarily in tone, but in pacing that occurs once Rapp is unofficially recruited into the CIA after his girlfriend is brutally murdered right in front of him. It is the scenes early on in the film though that are most interesting as O'Brien is given the opportunity as Rapp to show how much of a real deal his character is and what he can accomplish by his own will. He is a man with nothing to lose who's confident in his abilities. Through the amount of anger he feels toward the terrorist group that took away the last good thing in his life that no doubt made everything else that had happened to him bearable, Rapp has trained himself in mixed martial arts, in speaking foreign languages and learning the intricacies of their culture, all the way to infiltrating secret terrorist channels on the internet. It is in these early scenes where the audience is allowed to stew with O'Brien's Rapp that we get a sense of the flavor and potential the series contains-that Rapp is unlike his counterparts because he is an aggressive operative who is willing to take measures that are more extreme than might be considered commonly acceptable-and then twenty minutes in the nuclear bomb subplot gets dropped and everything from this point on begins to feel less and less inspired and more and more predictable.  

After Rapp's attempt to infiltrate the terrorist group that was responsible for the death of his girlfriend are interrupted by U.S. Special Forces (don't you hate when that happens) Rapp is recruited by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) to be a part of a black operations unit that is led by a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Cold War veteran named Hurley (Michael Keaton) who couldn't be more self-serious if he were dead serious about how serious he is. Seriously. While there is a little (tiny) bit of fun to be had with the interplay between O'Brien and Keaton in these initial conversations as the banter is knowing and hip to the aforementioned genre it exists within the film soon devolves into more seriousness. We get the obligatory training montage that sees O'Brien's Rapp going head to head with Scott Adkins' Victor that stirs up a little team rivalry that really isn't considering Victor is definitely a more senior member of the team, has a good twenty years of life experience on Rapp (not to mention the fact Adkins is a professional kickboxer that has mastered many forms of martial arts), and is likely of a more sound body and mind given Rapp has yet to be able to truly harness his anger and need for vengeance into something sustainable. Still, the film consistently reminds us that Lathan's Kennedy has never seen another vigilante like Rapp and that his tests are off the chart. That's all well and good, but is that really enough for the CIA Deputy Director to go off of and fully trust in so as well as to ignore the wisdom and experience of a senior officer who believes the kid isn't emotionally ready to take on whatever it might be that the CIA needs them to do next? Apparently so. Enter again the nuclear bomb plot as American Assassin then interrupts its own training montage to jump start the rest of the film by abruptly sending Hurley and his team of Victor and Rapp to meet up with the CIA's agent on the ground in Istanbul, Annika (Shiva Negar), to uncover the truth about who and why plutonium was stolen from what was supposed to be a deal between Poland and a political group from Iran that doesn't like their country's latest nuclear deal with the U.S.. As it turns out, the plutonium was intercepted by an operative nicknamed "Ghost" who, it is very quickly made clear, shares a past connection with Hurley. From here, things only become overly convoluted as the story struggles to sustain a feature-length running time and thus feels the need to throw in such classics as double crossings and countdowns via bomb clocks rather than relishing in the brutality and the rawness of the dynamics that the film only hints at in its most emotionally disparaging of character moments.

Hurley (Michael Keaton) is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL and Cold War vet that means serious business in American Assassin.
© 2016 CBS Films Inc. and Lions Gate Films Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Wait? There are potentially interesting (def. arousing curiosity or interest; holding or catching the attention) questions posed or ideas pondered in something as seemingly broad as American Assassin? Given the state of the world and specifically the U.S. at the moment, sure, why not? Of course, most of these come with the introduction of the previously unnamed "Ghost" who <Spoiler Alert!> turns out to be Taylor Kitsch (though I'm sure you wouldn't have guessed who the only other major name in the movie might be playing) who is more or less playing the scorned, former golden boy of Hurley's that Rapp presently embodies. Essentially, for the majority of his time on screen, Kitsch gets to wax sadistic about how patriotism is nothing more than a word made-up to give guys such as himself some feeling of a higher purpose. That, turning out soldiers such as himself-taking unstable, often misguided children in at eighteen because they have nowhere else to turn to and no other options and utilizing the scorned feelings they've internalized their entire lives to make monsters out of-is the business America is in. Kitsch's "Ghost" argues that this must be the right path though, because America does it and to question the great United States is wholly unconstitutional. So yeah, it would be wrong to accuse American Assassin of having nothing on its mind when clearly it has an antagonist who is both motivated and complex in that what he's doing is not only what he believes is the right thing to do, but also because he's been so damaged by those who he thought he could trust that he must have been pushed even further when those same people are now the ones on his trail. Does the film expand on any of these ideas through the newly minted main character or do other characters seek to correct their past mistakes in present situations due to these former failures that are once again rearing their head? Not really. Whereas Kitsch gets all the substance American Assassin has to offer and does what he can to execute the character in a real and affecting manner, Keaton goes fully to the other side of the spectrum. This is disappointing as Keaton has obviously been putting in some work lately, but it seems here the undeniably charismatic actor was challenged to be his least charismatic and thus went with adapting this low, gravely facade and voice that goes full Mike Tyson crazy on what would then be Kitsch's Evander Holyfield. O'Brien is the balancing act here as he is both committed to the technicalities of the role, but seemingly uninterested in the actions his character must take. For example, one can see the fight scenes are heavily and expertly choreographed here, but Cuesta's direction doesn't allow for us to be able to appreciate any of the work that was likely put in and that's how you largely come away from O'Brien's performance feeling-slightly compelled, but not necessarily invested. On top of that, American Assassin simply isn't as exciting as it should be as the level of brutality takes the place of absent thrills. There is some cool imagery to be sure and the film does in fact feel very cinematic-even simple establishing shots require big crane movements-but while American Assassin might be unique with its R-rating and unflinchingly dark overtones it is also unbelievably pedestrian.