One man’s devastating loss results in the molding of the single greatest weapon in the fight against terrorism. ‘American Assassin’ tells the story of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), A 23 year old who lost his parents to a tragic car accident at the tender age of 14, as well as his girlfriend to a terrorist attack just as they were recently engaged. Seeking revenge in the most punishing of ways, Mitch is enlisted by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) as a black ops recruit. Kennedy then assigns Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to train Mitch. Together they will later on investigate a wave of apparently random attacks on military and civilian targets. The discovery of a pattern in the violence leads them to a joint mission with a lethal Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar), to stop a mysterious operative, nicknamed “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), intent on starting A world war in the Middle East. ‘American Assassin’ is directed by Michael Cuesta, and is rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, adult language and brief nudity.
‘American Assassin’ feels like the search for the next great action hero to follow in the steps of James Bond, Jason Bourne, or John Wick, but never reaching the potential of those physically gifted heavyweights. Instead, we get a taut spy thriller that unfortunately underachieves in A lot of possible potential, especially in that of its title character. As an action protagonist, there was very little for me in Rapp that ever made him stand out as something extraordinary. His biggest dominating trait is that he is disobeying, a ploy that the movie isn’t afraid to hammer home on multiple occasions. Aside from that, he’s small, borderline racist, and at times lacking extraordinary personality to make him at least appealing in the audible sense. I get that size isn’t everything, but to take down these mammoth men who clearly outweigh him by at least forty pounds is something that weighed heavily on my thought process watching the many action sequences in the movie. But to understand the problems with Rapp, let alone every other character in the movie, you have to first understand where they are getting their instructions from.
Look, I don’t know much about Michael Cuesta as a filmmaker, and there’s certainly the arguments for the aspects in film that he does do well, but character direction simply isn’t one of them. There’s no soft way to put it, these characters are as one-dimensional as you can possibly be in a movie that needs boastful exposition in getting them over. In terms of Rapp, this story feels like it abandons him about halfway through, opting instead for the mysterious link between Ghost and where he fits in to his American heritage. This isn’t something I’m necessarily against if done correctly, but Ghost himself vibrantly lives up to his name because his one-off scenes do nothing in shaping a worthy opponent who he himself did present some brief flashes of brilliances. This is kind of the story for all of these characters; it often feels like Cuesta wants their real life personas to over-extend to their on-screen characters, and it just isn’t enough. Where there’s smoke, there is often fire, and the flames burning through the expense of some much needed character for the movie negates every one of them to bland tough guy personalities who are missing that link to make them relatable to anyone but the fraternity brotherhoods that will see this movie in droves.
The film clocks in at 106 minutes, not terribly unexpected for an action origin story, especially since this one stays firmly paced, but one that sometimes weighs heavily on the thought process in shaping out a vital first act of the movie that slips on banana peels in reaching for a dramatic pulse. The idea is there, mostly because I am a huge Punisher fan, and the backstory of Rapp’s conveniently matches that of Frank Castle on more than one occurance, but the girlfriend death scene happens right away at the beginning of the film, giving us little time to appreciate our couple or invest in their union before it all goes south. And right when you think we would see a grieving period from Rapp, the character moves straight on to vengeance without ever second guessing himself. To miss this opportunity really blew my mind because if you can’t get behind a guy who lost something so important to him, your attachment to the character or story will float away like tears in the rain. The death isn’t used for anything except cheap manipulation towards the end when it makes little sense because of another surprise that flourished about fifteen minutes into the film. We all know that Taylor Kitsch is our central antagonist in the movie, but to find out that he isn’t the character who ended the life of Rapp’s girlfriend, and then to see that killing terrorist dealt with early on in the movie, makes it very difficult to ever reach that peak again. Imagine John Wick killing the person who shot his dog within the first half hour of the movie, and then asking the audience to care about some totally unrelated guy on the side.
It’s not all bad for Cuesta however, as the man definitely knows how to hold a camera for some pretty decadent sequences in devastating destruction. This can at least pack a vibrant punch for the film when all other areas are lacking. The fight sequences are crisp, moving in fluidity and depiction with such articulation because the camera work of Cuesta knows to never get too close and outshine the brutality. It stays right on the side and decides to let our characters dictate the direction of where it’s headed without it getting to jerky on the movements. The chase sequences, as well as the major blowout finale revealed to me that the producers definitely weren’t afraid to shell out the extra cash in order to enlighten the audience to how dangerous plutonium is. The gore as well impressed me to no end, pushing hard on that R-rating that proves it is the only way to do a film of this caliber. For the carnage candy nut in all of us, ‘American Assassin’ can at least play with the big boys, and its graphic material supplants itself at the head of the highlights for the film’s positives.
I mentioned earlier that the direction is poor for the character outlines, but the performances hint that something greater could’ve been met with an enjoyable cast. O’Brien is the only actor who I feel is miscast here because of his physical limitations and dry personality. I liked Dylan in ‘The Maze Runner’ series, but the transition to adult roles takes three HUGE steps with a role like Rapp, and maybe a few more years down the line he could’ve grown into it. Keaton was the most enjoyable for me even if his character is basically just an off-the-wall counterpart to everything that he has ever played. The madness in macho American toughness within him made me laugh unintentionally on more than one occasion, but at least it did give me something to enjoy in regards to the characters. Kitsch as a villain could be great. In the earlier years of his career, he’s kind of found it difficult in being a lead protagonist, but the waters of villain might be where his heart truly lies. There are spry occasions when we see Ghost as an intelligent mental chess player who always thinks a move ahead, but the script’s investment in him is too slim for his portrayal to ever imprint something memorable on the audience who are already sour on him.
THE VERDICT – ‘American Assassin’ more often than not misses its target in compelling spy thrills with a dramatic twang, but there’s plenty to appreciate in graphic brutality and high stakes action sequences for it to possibly gain cult status someday. The painful underwriting of these hollow characters, complete with protagonist without a pulse, drops the bar on every rule of audience investment since the dawn of time, and the first act mistakes in storytelling left me without a vest to succumb to the devastating blows that the bullets of logic spun at me. A bomb went off in the theater, but no one was there to hear it.