By Chaz Lipp
The Lowdown: Is it a tautly-paced geopolitical thriller, a dumb-fun action buddy pic, or a full-on CG-driven disaster spectacle… or all three? Tries to do too much, but manages to hit the mark as adrenaline-spiked entertainment.
American Assassin is an uncomfortable mix of exploitation and cheap thrills that manages to pass as competent entertainment, but just barely. Thanks to a full-tilt performance by Michael Keaton as a former Navy SEAL who now trains black ops recruits, director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger, L.I.E.) maintains interest throughout a relatively tight 111 minutes. It’s opening terror bloodbath on an idyllic Spanish beach is squirm-inducing, hitting arguably too close to the bone after the ever-increasing real-world events that have claimed lives (and set the rest of our collective nerves on edge).
As radicalized Middle Eastern gunmen mow down tourists, including the fiance of protagonist Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien of The Maze Runner series), the carnage is portrayed perhaps too viscerally for a popcorn movie. The sequence is highly provocative and stone-cold serious in a film that trades freely in ludicrous action-thriller cliche. It also admittedly gets the audience to side with Rapp, who becomes almost robotic in his need for vengeance.
Rapp wants to kill terrorists (he’s been laying low, training physically and mentally) so, after an unsuccessful attempt at gaining the trust of a radical organization, he winds up working for CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). While Assassin has been taut and tense up to this point, it’s the introduction of Keaton’s Stan Hurley that supercharges the story. While the tough-as-nails, old-school badass character he portrays isn’t anything new, it’s Keaton’s unpredictable line readings (not to mention his fully committed intensity) that sells this stock mentor/father figure role.
Rapp reveals himself as a promising but rebellious trainee (again, not terribly inventive) who’s quickly placed in the field as Deputy Director Kennedy and Hurley track a group who’ve obtained plutonium for the purposes of constructing a nuclear device. Spoiler alert: without revealing too much, it turns out the mastermind has close ties to Hurley. Can the grizzled Cold War-era veteran adhere to his own golden rule of never making it personal?
For one-track-minded Rapp, it’s always personal—every adversary has the same face in his mind: that of his fiance’s murderer. In fact, as depicted by Cuesta and his team of four screenwriters, Rapp’s hatred flirts uncomfortably with Islamophobia. Like the opening beach massacre, it’s a questionable move that seems intent on engendering audiences’ worst impulses. All in the service of a dumb-fun thriller. And it is dumb fun, laced with exciting action sequences. It just leaves one wishing it was all a tad bit smarter. O’Brien is suitably intense as Rapp, while Iranian-born Shiva Negar is the breakout star as Rapp’s field partner Annika.
Eventually Assassin takes a wild turn into CG-spectacle and disaster epic tropes. For point of reference imagine the deranged John Rambo and calculating Colonel Trautman of First Blood morphing into the decidedly more affable Rambo and gentler Trautman of Rambo III within the span of one movie. Rapp and Hurley begin as two driven guys who just might kill each other, but end up trading buddy-movie quips by the time the credits roll. The transition isn’t earned and feels phony, as if two different takes on the material were grafted together.
American Assassin is based on a 2010 novel of the same name by the late Vince Flynn, who penned a dozen other Mitch Rapp novels (there are 16 in total, with Kyle Mills having taken over the series following Flynn’s untimely death). Maybe the novel has more nuance (I’ve not read it). As a low-aiming action thriller, American Assassin gets the job done but it’s hard to say whether or not Mitch Rapp deserves his own cinematic franchise.
American Assassin images: Lionsgate Films