American Assassin is about a generic a title for a thriller as you can get. It sounds like the kind of title selected after weeks of careful focus grouping by the studio. It’s actually the title of the late Vince Flynn’s novel upon which the film is based. Mitch Rapp, the titular American Assassin, is the protagonist of more than a dozen novels, dating back to 1999. Perhaps that’s why there’s something strangely dated about Michael Cuesta’s American Assassin, a capable thriller that feels stuck in the 20th century.
Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner) stars as Mitch Rapp, a young man out for revenge after terrorists kill his fiancé. After being picked up attempting to take out a terror cell, Rapp is recruited by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) into a top secret CIA black ops team and that’s then the logic of the film begins to unravel and the laziness of the writing begins to show. Lathan’s talents go to waste on Kennedy, an exposition machine with an interested in Rapp that is both unwarranted and unsubstantiated.
Rapp’s qualifications consist primarily of ‘testing off the charts’ and ‘fitting a psych profile’, qualifications that get him shipped off to black ops boot camp, run by Stan Hurley, played by Michael Keaton, who is just enjoying the hell out of his career renaissance. At boot camp, Rapp trains with other nameless recruits, never to be seen or heard from again, learning spy tactics like how to spot a pregnant assassin at Ikea and how to slice a man’s throat the real way, not like how they do it in the movies. Herein lies one of the biggest problems with American Assassin – it’s a film with an inherently silly premise that’s intent on taking itself far too seriously.
The film, which runs a crisp 111 minutes, doesn’t have too much time to spend on developing Rapp’s training, or building his relationship with Hurley, and he’s soon sent into the field to help chase down a mercenary named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) before he is able to assemble a nuclear weapon and completely destabilize the Middle East. As far as spy stories go, it’s pretty much a paint by numbers; there’s very little about the film that’s particularly compelling or original. Now dull premises aren’t inherently problematic for spy stories – many of the James Bond, Mission Impossible, or Jack Ryan films have equally inane plots, but where those franchises take the time to develop character and build set pieces, director Michael Cuesta seems content to have his film be the lowest common denominator.
American Assassin was written by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herkovitz based on a novel by Nick Flynn. Screenwriting is not basketball; you don’t need five people. American Assassin feels less like the result of editing and more like the result of erosion. Nearly all the edges and interesting bits have been worn away. The film manages a small handful of subversive and exciting moments, including one of the more entertaining torture scenes in recent memory, thanks to Keaton’s scenery chewing performance, but most of even the film’s most thrilling set pieces fall flat.
Dylan O’Brien is one of the more interesting young actors working today. The star of the Maze Runner films, he’s already shown that he has the chops to helm an action franchise, but there’s just not a lot for him to dig into here. Mitch Rapp is a character with 16 books of mythology behind him, but in American Assassin, he just feels like a cheap Ethan Hunt imitation. Perhaps most disappointing is the film’s villain, the criminally underwritten mercenary with the eye-roll-inducing name ‘Ghost’. Kitsch injects a certain amount of intimidating physicality into the role, but there just isn’t much material for him to work with.
It’s not just the talent in front of the camera that goes unused. The film was shot by Enrique Chediak, who did amazing work in 127 Hours and the film was edited by Conrad Buff, who edited Titanic and Terminator 2, and yet the film drives straight down the middle of the stylistic road. Composer Steven Price, who won an Oscar for his score for Gravity, has slapped together a lazy, spy thriller score that’s even more forgettable than the action scenes it’s playing under. With this much talent going to waste, usually you’d want to blame the director, Michael Cuesta, but I have a feeling that the real dirty fingerprints belong to a studio that is more interested in making sure their film checks all the right boxes than it is in making a good film.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
American Assassin is a master class in mediocrity. It’s a perfunctory spy thriller that feels more like a discarded TV pilot than a film designed to launch a franchise. The Mitch Rapp on the page may be compelling enough to fill 16 novels, but the screen version has a tough time making it to two hours. It’s nowhere near as fun and exciting as it should be and fails to capitalize on any of the talent involved. American Assassin is certainly not the worst film to come out this year, but might be the most forgettable.