It’s been a strange year for action thrillers on the big screen with a few gems but even fewer certified quality hits to appreciate. The latest action offering looked to right that ship with a popular source material to its credit and the teaming up of a modern film icon and a promising newcomer on the big screen. “American Assassin” has its moments of heart and style, but for the most part it’s pretty much an average, by the books action flick that’s nothing special, but nothing terribly unwatchable either. Filled with clichés, great fight choreography, and a touching if wasted moral core “American Assassin” is a perfect popcorn thriller that really only hits the notes it has to hit to satisfy its fan base.
“American Assassin” is based on the Vince Flynn novel of the same name and stars young up and comer Dylan O’Brien, of “Maze Runner” fame, as Mitch Rapp, a frustrated self-made warrior looking to avenge the death of his girlfriend at the hands of a Middle Eastern terrorist sect. As he trains and makes his move for revenge his vengeance is cut short due to the intervention of the U.S. Special Forces leading Rapp to be recruited into a program specializing in asymmetrical warfare led by former Navy Seal Stan Hurley, played by Michael Keaton. As a new threat makes himself known Hurley works to rein in his new recruit and help Rapp conquer his unpredictable nature in order to put an end to a threat with origins in Hurley’s past.
It’s a pretty generic story to be bluntly honest. A down-on-his-luck nobody is recruited into an elite fighting program to use his skills for a more noble cause complete with legendary mentor, generic done-wrong bad guy, and more action set pieces and cuts than you can shake a fist at…wait was that a pun? It’s a violent movie so…yeah sorry bad pun. Anyways “American Assassin” isn’t necessarily boring or bogged down with exposition, in fact it’s actually rather fun for the most part, but it is a pretty basic action film by almost all accounts. All the clichés are here to enjoy, but even as far as generic action thrillers go “American Assassin” is a decent and fun experience to say the very least.
Dylan O’Brien, fresh off his injuries on the set of the forthcoming final “Maze Runner” film, continues to shine as a potential star of the screen by once again performing many of his own fight scenes and stunts and holding his own as the no-nonsense vengeful assassin Mitch Rapp. O’Brien truly holds this film together, considering that many of his fellow assassins are reduced to peons and barely identifiable side characters while O’Brien does a great job capturing the attitude and frustration of his own character following a traumatic event that sets him on the path of revenge. O’Brien’s reputation is still growing and this film should continue to build on his star power. His character is just complex enough to be interesting but not complicated enough for us to lose sight of his purpose and goal in life.
Flanking Dylan O’Brein is Michael Keaton as Stan Hurley who becomes an unwilling mentor of sorts for Rapp as he sees the young warrior as a loose cannon. Keaton has seen a resurgence for his career in recent years and it’s nice to see him tackle a more mainstream role with attitude. Between Hurley and The Vulture, Keaton has had some great opportunities to shine and while he may not be the first name in attitude, here he perfectly plays a confident but scarred veteran trying to avoid his past mistakes as he takes on a new trainee. While Keaton’s character is full of clichés and stereotypes for the average mentor role in such a film, Keaton adds charm and likability to the rough exterior of his character. Like Kapp, Hurley is a complex individual and while he is not too complicated to understand it’s easy to appreciate his perspective as he juggles regret, revenge, and his own ego and poise to get the job done while trying to capture the potential of his young recruits.
One character that doesn’t shine in this film is the main villain, a evil ex-protégé of Hurley’s codenamed “Ghost” played by Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch is an on-off actor, meaning sometimes he’s spot on and other times he’s way off. Here he’s way off with his performance as Ghost more reminiscent of his lackluster take in “Battleship” than his more memorable performances like in, say, “Savages”. Kitsch fails to do everything his fellow actors succeed at. There’s no real memorable personality or quality to his villainous role and while he has an interesting backstory Ghost is nothing more than a simple, generic, cookie cutter villain that creates forced character development and conflict meaningful to the protagonists on a personal level. While Ghost provides an interesting opportunity to challenge Hurley’s anti-vengeance stance, Kitsch does nothing to make his character intimidating or threatening enough to be considered more than a minor threat, especially when you realize his plan requires many people to do things for him while he sits back and twiddles his thumbs.
Back to the positives, “American Assassin” is a well choreographed film to say the least with some great one-on-one fight sequences that capture exactly what we came to see, men beating the crap out of each other in style. From the training exercises to Kapp’s invasion of a target’s hotel room every move means something. It’s not just people throwing fists and hoping they hit. Like the assassins in the film, the actors and choreographers seemed to be one step ahead every time, trying to think how each person would react in a given situation within the battle and how one wrong or right move can make the difference between life or death. This is where the movie shines the most, but unfortunately we don’t get enough of this as many action set pieces are reserved for shootouts and car chases with only two real hand-to-hand combat scenes in the movie and one major training segment that involves a one-on-one battle.
On the downside, “American Assassins” is bogged down by strange pacing and horrible CGI that would look alright at best on a television show let alone a movie. I actually believe this project would have been better as a series rather than a film because while we get some interesting backstory to our antagonist and protagonists the film moves too fast for us to be completely invested in the whole experience. It’s predictable and it’s almost like it was filmed with that approach in mind as we, the viewers, are pummeled with quick moments of subtle, but present, exposition and character introductions so that the movie can get to the point.
Possibly the biggest downside of the film though is that it betrays itself. Throughout the story there is the underlying theme of revenge as a negative rather than a positive. We see Kapp’s thirst for vengeance impact down his ability to perform his duties in line with commands while Ghost’s own thirst for revenge is as much his weakness as it is his motive. This story eventually betrays this underlying theme however considering that the entire third act is driven by the need for revenge and vengeance from both the heroes and the villain and by the movie’s end Kapp has turned his revenge-seeking ways into a strength and motivator. Handled properly this could have been an interesting attempt to portray the compartmentalization or redirection of anger and frustration over loss, but it’s handled in such a messy fashion that we’re only left wondering whether or not revenge is really a bad inspiration when you’re a trained killer.
“American Assassin” is a middle of the road film, but it’s still a fun viewing experience for anyone seeking an entertaining popcorn action thriller to embrace. There’s a lot wrong with this film, including its poor pacing, poor handling of its deeper story themes, and a horrible villain, but at the end of the day we get what we came to see, action, well choreographed fight scenes, and the beginning of a possible franchise that builds on the resurgence of Michael Keaton as a bankable star and Dylan O’Brein’s credibility as a leading man. Given more attention and better direction this movie may have been certified action gold. However, what we got is still a watchable and entertaining product that panders to the right audience and embraces all the right clichés to stand out in a year filled with subpar action offerings outside of comic book adaptations.