To quote Michael Keaton’s Ray Kroc from The Founder “franchise, franchise, franchise. Franchise the damn thing”
Amongst the sea of other, more engaging spy thrillers, American Assassin is the more forgettable and by the book thrillers of recent memory with its franchise potential being unwelcoming and flat.
We see Dylan O’Brian’s Mitch Rapp propose to his girlfriend on a beach in Ibiza and things are pleasant for a little bit. But then things get chaotic and downright savage thick and fast, with people scurrying for their lives, getting mowed down by terrorists armed to the tooth, including Mitch’s girlfriend. Somehow Mitch was spared amongst the anarchy, seeing the face of his enemy and is left devastated and robbed of a normal life.
Fast track 18 months later and he’s now transformed himself as a hardened, unruly Max Payne like hard man. From besting and brutally scrapping with others in dojo training which subsequently has him expelled to besting everyone at the shooting range and scaring them with his unorthodox tactics, Mitch lives a life of vengeful pursuit and hatred by tracking down the jihadists who had a hand in murdering his girlfriend. Ones who justify their actions by fending off against American imperialism. Mitch eventually tracks them down but not before U.S. Special Forces dispatch the infidels and rescue him before he can do the deed himself, he’s not happy about that at all.
Sanaa Lathan’s Irene Kennedy is the deputy director for the CIA and has kept an intrigued eye over Mitch’s activities and abilities for some time, so much so she wants to harness his rage and death wish like attitude to combat against counter terrorism which involves weapons grade plutonium. She takes him to the woods as for the training he’s about to embark on won’t be say, by the book (that’s twice I’ve used that now, there’ll probably be a third)
Enter Michael Keaton’s Stan Hurley, a former Navy seal and Cold War veteran who’s tough as nails (there’s more relevance in that compliment than you might think) drill sergeant of a tutors Mitch with some harsh realities about being in the thick of it and expressing no admiration or encouragement. Such tutelage like “you flinch, you die” and “as soon as it starts to feel good, you stop being a professional” are blunt but effective lessons that’ll ensure swift victory for their team, even if it is the kind of work where you can expect to get sniped from just about anywhere.
Amidst all this is a renegade mercenary known as ‘Ghost’ (Taylor Kitsch) who’s playing for the wrong team who has a close connection with Stan that soon pits the both of them in a gruelling, cringe inducing torture sequence which is followed by a potentially disastrous and volatile epidemic.
Adapted from Vince Flynn’s novel of the same name, director Michael Cuesta (who’s been involved in the likes of Dexter, Six Feet Under and True Blood) is convinced that he and his team have made the film as grounded in reality as possible which part of that realism I suppose is captured in its depiction of violence. The 2nd feature I’ve seen this year rated an 18, American Assassin’s sense of violence is relentless and in your face that makes the opening sequence for instance both shocking and sadistic (a lot of civilians die in this). Other than that and some good performances, it’s pretty by the book (not just the book it’s based on).
The performances are excellent mostly, but many of the characters are pretty stock, with a couple slightly miscast.
The fresh faced look of Dylan O’Brian emphasises how this is someone who is pulled into this world who showed no signs beforehand of wanting to ‘fight the good fight’ and he brings focus and gravitas to the role. The internal struggle within Mitch isn’t really conveyed in the manner that drives the narrative however. As much as that’s what Cuesta was going for, it’s let down by eye rolling predictabilities in the plot and unremarkable CGI.
I haven’t seen Keaton this mean and no nonsense like ever. He’s the more accomplished actor amongst everyone involved so it’s no surprise that he gets the chance to chew the scenery. The scenes where his Stan is frustrated at Mitch’s noncompliance and heavy trigger finger are somewhat engrossing.
There are instances of Rambo to a degree where men who serve in this line of work are forgotten and underappreciated. The setting in the book takes place in the 90’s and Cuesta considered the topical nature of the source material by modernizing it to the politics of today. The political commentary (if there’s any at all) didn’t seem that clear to me though.
If you’re fashioning a film that’s very familiar to the audience, at least make it fresh with something to say about say for instance the current landscape of U.S. foreign policy or the treatment of expendable soldiers. Maybe there is some, I’m no political head so I could be wrong, but the film lacks any kind of allegorical insight to make it stand out. In terms of the plot developments, you can’t help but feel it’s all a bit preposterous and over the top, especially in its later half.
I wouldn’t say this is terrible, I was transfixed at times and I’m pretty sure this will be a neat little thriller for some. It just feels like something that will be adapted into a video game series than to be taken too seriously.