In “American Assassin,” the violence is surprising and brutal. However, its impact is stymied by a predictable script and action sequences that feel like a watered-down version of “John Wick.” And while Dylan O’Brien is a compelling and charming lead, and Michael Keaton unleashes a welcome degree of cantankerousness, this is one mission that should have been aborted.
Still, “American Assassin” kicks off with a bang that sets the tone for several more. While on vacation on the beach in Spain, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega), recording the tender event on his smart phone, unaware of the bloodshed that’s about to break out around them. Viewers, however, will be one step ahead of them — thanks in part to the cheesy setup, and to the film’s telling tagline: “Assassins aren’t born, they’re made.”
For Mitch, the undercover CIA counter-terrorism agent who stars in Vince Flynn’s series of novels, being made means tragedy must strike at the hands of lethal terrorists, who storm the beach of the luxury resort in a wave of brutal, unrelenting violence that mirrors the real-life 2015 Sousse attack in Tunisia. It’s an unsettling event to watch, particularly with the movie opening just days after the anniversary of 9/11, but it’s especially frustrating because it sets off the first of many tired clichés: the cold-blooded murder of Mitch’s fiancée.
Months later, after recovering from his gunshot wounds, Mitch has become the proverbial “lone wolf,” working on his own to infiltrate a terrorist cell. He suddenly speaks fluent Arabic, and he’s been training around the clock, getting kicked out of MMA gyms for his unpredictable anger and wild streak. His only goal is to destroy terrorist cells one by one, with his own two hands, to avenge his fiancée. But while he succeeds in getting his ludicrous plan off of the ground, jetting off to Libya for a face-to-face introduction with a band of terrorists, his revenge is taken away from him when the CIA swoop in to save the day.
Of course, the CIA had been monitoring Mitch for a long time, but instead of finding his behavior disturbing, the institution sees him as the perfect candidate for a special-ops team, helmed by Stan Hurley (Keaton, crotchety and one-note). Mitch is thrown into a round of intense training sequences, which make up some of the film’s more distinctive moments, including a VR shoot-out, where Mitch repeatedly shocks himself because he refuses to follow orders and shoots. It’s painfully obvious that he’s a wild card.
Stan doesn’t think Mitch is ready for field work, but CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who discovered Mitch, thinks he is — and wouldn’t you know it, someone has stolen weapons-grade plutonium and is ready to create a nuclear weapon. So Mitch ships out with Stan’s elite team, but not before being goaded with cell phone video of his beach day proposal. Mitch naturally flips out but Stan is just teaching a valuable, clunky lesson: Don’t let it get personal. Would you believe that he does?
Enter Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), the conveniently placed foil who provides both a mission and a lesson for Mitch. Although Stan is initially coy about the connection, it’s painfully obvious that Ghost was a former protege of Stan’s, and one who was thought to be dead after a mission gone awry several years earlier. But the history between Ghost and Stan is cast aside as a trivial detail, spilled out in casual asides and lengthy dialogue that tantalizes when it doesn’t run into a wall.
Ghost might have been replaced as the golden boy by Mitch, but the history between Stan and his rogue protege would have been worth exploring in full. What drove Ghost to become a mercenary? The answer is left vague, of course, but it’s a weak offering compared to his actions. Ghost’s name implies a significant backstory, but it doesn’t enrich his qualities as a legitimate threat.
Although the plot of “American Assassin” is riddled with predictable beats, it does present two women of color with strong supporting roles. Sanaa Lathan is especially strong as the unflappable Director Kennedy, and Shiva Negar is a welcome addition to Stan’s all-male team as Annika, an undercover agent who proves to be especially important to Mitch in the long-run. Director Michael Cuesta makes the most of a predictable script, having honed his skills behind the camera on several high-profile shows, including “Homeland.” But in the long-run, the most interesting parts of “American Assassin” are the ones that are never seen, and one has to wonder if the film would have been better served investing more in background or even flashback sequences to help the film’s last half actually pay off.
“American Assassin” went through a handful of false starts before finally making it to the big screen. Initially, Chris Hemsworth was due to star as Mitch Rapp, but eventually the film was treated as a prequel, with O’Brien settling into what could be a career-defining role that grows as he does. No such luck: “American Assassin” doesn’t exactly scream for the sequel treatment.
Still, passive audiences seeking pure escapism will find the bare minimum of fast action and ass-kicking mandated by the movie’s formula. When paired with O’Brien’s charm and an unquestionably tantalizing ending, it’s possible that audiences haven’t seen the last of Mitch Rapp. Let’s just hope his next adventure offers a few more surprises.