Title: American Assassin
Release Date: September 15, 2017
Studio: Lionsgate / CBS Films
Director: Michael Cuesta
Release Format: Theatrical
American Assassin is an action-packed spy thriller that follows a young man after a chaotic oceanside terrorist attack takes the life of his fiancee. Dylan O’Brien (Maze Runner, Teen Wolf) stars as Mitch Rapp, a guy whose entire life seems to have been his love for his fiance. After her death, he goes on a year-long quest to Batman himself up some combat skills and Arab language skills to infiltrate and ultimately destroy the terror cell responsible for the beach massacre.
In the tradition of globe-trotting spy movies, every shot is beautiful European locale where tourists would love to sit at a cafe and sip tea. Right from the start at the pivotal beach attack sequence, done as a gorgeous stitched-together one-shot where Rapp runs to check on his fiance and then flee for his life, American Assassin delivers captivating visuals. According to the actors, who gave a Q&A after an early screening at the Alamo Drafthouse, the beach attack scene shows eight separate sunsets as the full sequence was stitched together over the course of a couple weeks’ filming.
So much beauty in a movie with so little substance.
While the audience knows Rapp wants revenge, the film doesn’t give us much else to work with. We see him train, we see him plot, but we don’t know who he is, only what he wants. If anything, we lose the sense of who he was before the attack, a fun-loving newlywed-to-be going on sexy beach outings and taking lots of videos to be dangled as emotional bait in the future. Post-attack, he’s a blank slate.
While I hadn’t read or even heard of the series of best-selling novels this movie is supposed to be based on the 11th of, I imagine readers must have built up some idea of who this Rapp kid is before getting hit with his tragic and intense prequel backstory. As starting points go, it feels incredibly contrived. Maverick angry 20-something gets picked up by maverick group of military spec ops trained in secret by maverick trainer Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton,). Even Hurley’s erstwhile protege ‘Ghost’ (Taylor Kitsch) goes full maverick, double-crossing everyone he meets, refusing to follow anyone’s plans.
The pervasive refusal to follow rules by every character is a big part of why this movie never quite clicks. While the conflict names real world actors with real world conflicts (Iran, Israel, Hezbollah, Obama, etc), everyone is acting independently of their respective groups. What should be a political drama of clashing nations just becomes a blood-soaked vendetta story about one tough guy trainer, his old disgruntled student, and his new disgruntled student. What could have been a story of overcoming the poison of revenge never rises above a well-armed pissing contest between two severely damaged young men, weaponized and released into the wild to terrorize civilians.
Thankfully, the chaos caused by all these severely damaged young men is exciting to watch. O’Brien’s portrayal of Rapp is that of a military special operative that came to the position not through standard military training, but MMA lessons and obsessive, vengeance-fueled practice. Rapp is the one character it makes the most sense for a not-by-the-books approach because he has no knowledge of the operation. He doesn’t know protocol, he doesn’t know jurisdiction. They only trained him to fight, they never trained him to follow orders. Really, they don’t even have much leverage to get him to behave. All they have is the dangling promise of a bigger target to take out.
The writing doesn’t seem to care how Rapp gets from target to target. Everything is exposition for the next action sequence. Emotionally, this movie lives paycheck to paycheck, only setting up enough character and plot to justify the next (very fun to watch) action sequence. It doesn’t bank any significant character development to pay off later in the film, it just riles up Rapp and sets him loose on bad guys.
American Assassin is an origin story. Loved ones die, training montage, recruitment, first mission, hard choices about what path to take, etc. What makes most origin stories work is we know who the character is becoming. We see them learn their iconic skills, pick their iconic weapons, design their iconic wardrobes. As someone who has no familiarity with this character, I don’t know what we’re building to other than the end of a somewhat generic spy movie.
Verdict: American Assassin is ultimately a pointless look at a young man’s bloodthirsty vengeance quest to not only kill those responsible for his fiancee’s murder, but to kill everyone associated with them. The direction is good, the set pieces are fascinating, and Michael Keaton shines in every scene he’s in, but you’re left not really having anyone to root for in this fun but shallow shooter.
- Beautiful Locations
- Well-shot and Choreographed Action
- Michael Keaton
- Plot is Generic, Predictable
- Characters Lack Backstories
- Violence Porn