A film review by Craig J. Koban September 30, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN jjj

2017, R, 111 mins.

 

Dylan O'Brien as Mitch Rapp  /  Michael Keaton as Stan Hurley  /  Sanaa Lathan as Irene Kennedy  /  Taylor Kitsch as Ghost  /  Scott Adkins as Victor  /  David Suchet as Stansfield  /  Shiva Negar as Annika  /  Navid Negahban as Behurz  /  Trevor White as Dr. Frain  /  Alaa Safi as Javeed

Directed by Michael Cuesta  /  Written by Michael Finch, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, and Stephen Schiff, based on the book by Vince Flynn

 

 

AMERICAN ASSASSIN is a new spy/espionage action thriller adapted from Vince Flynn's 2010 novel of the same name, which in turn is part of a 16 volume literary series.  I can see Hollywood's yearning to crack Flynn's source material and churn it into the next would-be JASON BOURNE franchise, but AMERICAN ASSASSIN lacks the consummate production values, bravura style,  and headstrong confidence of that iconic series.  Instead, this latest genre effort does very little to segregate itself from a very crowded pack; for the most part, it has the look and feel of a workmanlike assembly line product that's designed to easily placate modest viewer demands for the material. 

That's not to say, though, that AMERICAN ASSASSIN isn't enjoyable in a basic no-frills kind of way.  It's a dutifully manufactured and derivative JASON BOURNE clone, yes, but it's rarely dull and gets the job done.   

That, and the film contains a gripping and haunting opening sequence of gut punching power and horror that easily commands our attention and buy in.  We meet Mitch Rapp (THE MAZE RUNNER's Dylan O'Brien) who's enjoying what appears to be a vacation on the sun drenched beaches of a Spanish resort with his girlfriend, whom he proposes to while there.  Very soon afterwards tragedy strikes when Mitch's brand new fiancÚ is maliciously murdered in cold blood - alongside dozens of other resort dwellers - by heavily armed terrorists.  Miraculously, the wounded Mitch emerges from the hellish ordeal alive, but with a serious bone to pick with the extremist scum that robbed him of a life with his beautiful bride-to-be, which culminates with him taking matters into his own hands in terms of staging some serious comeuppance against those that wronged him.   

 

 

After this unbelievably chilling prologue the film flashes forward nearly two years and re-introduces us to Mitch, who has obsessively devoted himself to his soul mission of revenge, training his mind and body to achieve just that.  He has even taken to infiltrating the cell responsible for his girlfriend's death online and brokers a face-to-face meeting with their leader (this section is arguably the second best of the film after the introduction, all done with training montages, online exchanges, very little dialogue, and a lot of close ups of the bearded Mitch overcome with angered determination).  Mitch does manage to make it into the terrorist cell, but just before he can make his move and assassinate its head the CIA moves in and takes him out instead.  Feeling frustrated and morally defeated, the incarcerated Mitch is given an even better opportunity to channel his aggression to a better cause: A CIA director of covert ops (Sanaa Lathan) offers him a position in one of the agency's finest clandestine groups that overseas anti-terrorism missions all over the globe.  There's one catch, though: he has to pass a painfully brutal basic training program.   

That program is overseen by group leader Stan Hurley (the always authoritative Michael Keaton), an ex-Navy SEAL that runs his secluded boot camp with a very rigid iron fist by training his men to become the very finest "American assassins" the country has to offer.  Despite some early setbacks, Mitch manages to impress the very hard to impress Cold War veteran in Stan, even while his impetuous nature and unwillingness to take orders frustrates the ring leader to no end.  However, Stan realizes a good thing when he sees it, and begrudgingly decides to give Mitch some actual field time on a very special mission: Track and stop a former agent and student of Stan's (an oddly cast Taylor Kitsch), who's trying to secure necessary components to craft a nuclear bomb and hand it over to the Iranians that wish to use it against the U.S..   

To its credit, AMERICAN ASSASSIN looks good, thanks to the frequently gorgeous cinematography by Enrich Chediak, who seems to elevate the film from feeling completely like a direct-to-video feature.  The film's director, Michael Cuesta, also paces the film rather well, which allows AMERICAN ASSASSIN to feel quite lean and economical throughout without coming off as wasteful.  The aforementioned introductory sequence is as well oiled and intense as anything I've seen in a thriller as of late, which is kind of a paradoxical shame, seeing as later on Cuesta seems to have a bit of a shaky hand when it comes time to choreographing the film's multiple action sequences.  Even though his editorial approach overall is choppy and sometimes lacking in clarity, the film nevertheless has a few standout fight sequences, like a sensational one pitting to fairly well matched combatants on a speeding boat. 

The individual performances built around these set pieces are a mixed bag at best.  Dylan O'Brien does a very decent and low key job playing the lead character with a lot of understated intensity, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that Mitch, on paper, is pretty paper thin on the development side; you really learn very little about him throughout the course of the narrative, and seeing that several more books in the series exist I guess this character is ripe for exploration in potential future films.  O'Brien's introverted and sometimes charm-free work here is saved considerably by the sheer presence of Michael Keaton, who really appears to be the only actor in the entirety of AMERICAN ASSASSIN that's having a good time chewing scenery and investing in his character.  Grizzled, wonderfully hard edged, and gnarly to the bone, Keaton is the constant focal point of intrigue in the film.  He's a hoot even when occupying the most barbarically violent of scenes, like when he's held captive and viciously tortured by having his fingernails torn out one at a time.  After the first one come out he barks at his captor "I have nine more!" 

I only wished that AMERICAN ASSASSIN had a strong enough villain to play opposite of O'Brien and Keaton, and Taylor Kitsch seems woefully wrong as his sadistic and mass murder happy former soldier with a serious axe to grind.  His character displays great potential in showcasing how a once noble minded American soldier goes bad and rogue and eventually becomes a puppet master for Middle Eastern terrorist groups, but neither Kitch's performance or the character as written is able to reinforce such thematic ambition and intrigue.  The screenplay itself - penned by almost too many credited screenwriters to count - wants to say something deep and penetrating as well about how bloodthirsty revenge has tainted Mitch's sense of compassionate humanity, but the film overall is never equal to the task of thoroughly exploring such tantalizing possibilities. 

AMERICAN ASSASSIN seems to be on perfunctory autopilot throughout much of its running time, and it certainly contains twists and obligatory character double crosses that are not as nearly surprising as the makers of this film think they are.  Yet, the film builds to a fairly sensational climax that pits Mitch and Stan racing against the clock (in their case, a big digital clock on a nuke) to ensure that an entire Navy fleet isn't wiped out by a nuclear detonated bomb by the conniving villain.  AMERICAN ASSASSIN also concludes by hinting at future adventures to come for Mitch Rapp without making the whole film leading up to that moment feeling like a sluggish and obvious franchise starter (there's a definitive beginning, middle, and ending here).  

Truth be told, AMERICAN ASSASSIN sometimes feels like stale leftovers of better and more memorable spy thrillers, not to mention that it rarely comes off as having a distinct identity all of its own.  Yet, the film is fairly engaging, features an endlessly watchable performance by Keaton, and sustains enough forward narrative momentum to make for a humbly entertaining two hour diversion at the cinemas.  It's also a film that makes me wants to seek out potential future episodes in a series, a vibe that very few pathetically obvious franchise launching opening installments rarely instill in me.  

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