Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Adkins & Sanaa Lathan
Directed by: Michael Cuesta
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Release Date: September 2017
Running Time: 111 mins
Synopsis: When Cold War veteran Stan Hurley takes CIA black ops recruit Mitch Rapp under his wing, they receive an assignment to investigate a wave of random attacks on both military and civilian targets. After discovering a pattern of violence, Hurley and Rapp join forces with a lethal Turkish agent to stop a mysterious operative who wants to start a global war.
Based on the bestselling Mitch Rapp book series from Vince Flynn and Kyle Mills, American Assassin straddles the line between YA Fiction and spy thriller. Acting as an origin story for the character, the story takes place during Rapp’s formative years as a twenty-something hotshot with revenge in his heart, turning from wannabe terrorist-hunter to a fully-fledged CIA operative. The character shares many traits with other modern spy protagonists such as Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher; although the casting of Teen Wolf and Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien suggests an attempt to draw in YA fans to follow a new franchise. While O’Brien is impressive as the determined assassin, he looks a bit too boyishly handsome for the role, especially compared to the ruggedness of his cinematic spy compatriots such as Matt Damon and Daniel Craig. His fellow spies-in-training (including one played by Scott Adkins) seemed more visually suited for the role, as does his nemesis Ghost – played by Taylor Kitsch. I found it difficult to accept O’Brien as a cold-blooded assassin, despite the film’s many attempts to portray him as such.
Michael Keaton co-stars as Rapp’s CIA mentor Stan Hurley, and he takes what might be considered a familiar and overused stock role and injects it with that indescribable Keaton charm. I was worried that his role would be an extended cameo, but he features heavily in the film and earns his co-star status. Sanaa Lathan guides the ship as CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy, getting the right mix of vulnerability, kindness and badassery. Her role feels very similar to Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad, and radiates much of the same female empowerment attitude. Another standout female role comes from Shiva Negar as Annika, who initially appears to be a potential love interest for Rapp, but evolves into a far-more complicated character. The villain of the piece, Taylor Kitsch’s Ghost, is an interesting mirror reflection of Rapp himself; a student of Hurley filled with revenge and a willingness to break the rules. Kitsch gets a few moments to shine towards the final act, but I was surprised how little focus he was given.
While the film might appeal to YA audiences because of its lead actor and decision to focus on the origin story of the character, American Assassin is actually quite violent and brutal at times. The opening sequence of a terrorist attack on a beach in Ibiza is quite traumatic, although some of the CGI blood splatters and muzzle flashes dampen the impact slightly, but I was shocked that the film used this type of attack instead of a typical explosion – especially since this sequence isn’t present in the original novel. Similarly, there is a torture scene towards the end of the film and while most films would imply the removal of fingernails, we’re actually shown the moment when the nail is ripped off on-screen. I have a phobia about fingernails – I’m actually grimacing now as I type this – so this scene definitely had me cringing and reaching for the remote.
The final chase scene with Rapp and Ghost fighting each other aboard a speedboat was extraordinarily thrilling, and I appreciated the attempt at realism when it came to the nuclear device – there was no red wire/blue wire scenario; and we got to see the after-effects of the detonation in what appeared to be a realistic manner. There were definite consequences of the event, as opposed to the typical last-minute save seen in most spy thrillers.
One thing I did notice as I watched the film was the use of CGI green-screen backdrops as a stand-in for location shoots. It seemed most obvious during the scene in Rome when Rapp, Hurley and Annika are staking out a bank; the scene takes place in a roadside café, but it appears that the entire backdrop is computer-generated. It’s hard to explain why it looks so odd, but the scene lacks any real sense of depth, and it also restricts the camera angles that the director can use; forcing them to do the same few shots again and again. This seems to be a growing trend within films nowadays, and while I understand it can be useful to represent alien landscapes; it felt a tad unnecessary to replicate the streets of Rome, especially when it appeared that other scenes were filmed on location there. There’s no substitute for a real location shoot, even if it is confined to a built-up sound stage.
The title American Assassin has certain connotations to it, and as a result I was expecting to see a very patriotic narrative throughout the film, but it never really materialised. I understand that the novel it adapts was also called American Assassin, but the title is so loaded with jingoism, I don’t get why the film was marketed as this – especially in overseas territories. I guess it sounds like a franchise name, but I wonder if the title had an impact upon the film’s box-office success. As of today, five years after the initial release, no sequel has been announced, so it seems as if hopes for a franchise have fizzled out.
American Assassin borrows plenty from other post-The Bourne Identity spy thrillers, but there are some nuggets of originality on display here. I particularly enjoyed the glimpses into the CIA training; such as the augmented reality take on the traditional shooting range and the fake mission scenario using actors. O’Brien does a great job in the revenge-focused titular role, but finds it tough to shake off his YA Fiction roots and step into the action hero arena proper. It’s tricky to see what demographic the film is aimed at; while it focuses on the younger incarnation of Mitch Rapp and uses O’Brien’s casting to engage YA audience, it never softens its hard edges for that audience – in fact, it showcases plenty of gruesome moments that I didn’t expect to see.
Exhilarating and brutal in equal measure, American Assassin entertains sure enough but it fails to build the strong foundations needed for an ongoing spy franchise.