“American Assassin” Movie Review


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     With a few notable exceptions, action films seem to follow the same formula these days both in narrative, as well as character attributes.  Director Michael Cuesta’s “American Assassin”, likely abandons the complexities of its characters found in the novel by Vince Flynn of which the film is based upon, and instead chooses to utilize the tired and overused tropes we see in the genre when films choose to remain mainstream, rather than actually making a statement.  It seems the intention here was to create the basis for a new franchise along the lines of “Jack Reacher” or “John Wick”, but the repetitive nature of the material when compared to countless other action entries of the last 20 years will ensure the film ends up in the proverbial scrap heap of films that failed to set themselves apart. 

     For starters, I’d be a rich man if I had a nickel for each time a film has used weapons grade plutonium as the MacGuffin charged with driving the plot.  And yes, the stuff has fallen into the hands of terrorists and it’s up to a covert unit of CIA spies to track it down before it’s too late.  Now where have we heard that one before?  Certainly, Jack Bauer and Carrie Mathison have battled many terrorists said to be in possession of this dastardly plot device, and even James Bond and John McClane have found themselves chasing bad guys seeking to get the materials necessary to make a bomb.  Mitch Rapp (played by “The Maze Runner” star Dylan O’Brien), the would be hero of “American Assassin” is on the trail of the insidious material as well, but only because he has a serious axe to grind.

     In order to give credibility to Mitch (and to O’Brien as an action star), the script, written by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, includes a scene between two of the main characters in which they stare at an iPad and one tells the other how great Mitch is with guns and martial arts.  In other words, he has Liam Neeson level “skills”.  We hear this in every film of this kind so as to let the audience know the main character is a bad ass and that’s important for you to know the rest of the way since he will be eliminating his enemies with ease.  This, apparently, is how screenwriters see it best to quality their characters these days.  It also serves as the reasoning as to why the CIA would want to recruit this guy in the first place.  So lets rewind a little bit.  The film opens with Mitch proposing to his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega) at a beach resort in Spain.  No sooner is the couple engaged, terrorists attack the beach and begin gunning down the vacationers in brutal fashion.  Mitch is wounded and left for dead.  Katrina is killed.

     A year later, Mitch has taken it upon himself to plan an intricate revenge plot against the terrorist cell who attacked the beach that fateful day.  Somehow within that time, he has become an expert in Mixed Martial Arts and firearms.  He also now speaks Arabic and portrays himself online as a Muslim who is looking to join a terrorist group.  He is quizzed about the religion in secret chat rooms and passes every test of his knowledge with flying colors.  To say he has immersed himself in the Muslim religion would be an understatement.  But unbeknownst to him, the CIA has been surveilling Mitch and is fully aware of his mission, as well as his skills.  Good thing too, since his meeting with the terrorist cell doesn't go as planned, and a CIA tactical team shows up to rescue him.

     For some reason, Deputy Director of the CIA Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) sees potential in Mitch as a candidate to join a covert CIA unit led by a legendary former Navy SEAL named Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton).  Maybe it’s because of his abilities, or maybe it’s the fact he is out for revenge, but ultimately Irene drops him off in a remote forrest training area as if Stan is the Pai Mei of CIA trainers.  We see the brutal regimen these candidates go through, but one thing kept coming to mind.  Why cast the wiry and smallish O’Brien in a role that calls for him to dispatch countless enemies via hand to hand combat in such dominating fashion?  What happened to the days where guys like Arnold and Sly were cast in these roles?  At least then they were believable.  “American Assassin” wants us to believe Mitch, dressed in skin tight Abercrombie shirts, can out duel these baddies because he trained for a year at an MMA gym?  To test this reality, simply watch a UFC event and see how difficult it is for athletes who have trained their entire lives for that moment to put someone away who is also trying to knock your head off.  From the beginning, the entire film just seemed implausible and at times laughable.

     And isn’t it sad to see this is what Oscar nominated work gets Michael Keaton?  Rather than getting roles that really test his acting chops, such as “Birdman” and “Spotlight”, he’s now appearing in pedestrian action films like this, trying to convince the audience that he is of all things a former Navy SEAL.  Yes, Keaton has his moments in the film, but both he and Sanaa Lathan are wasted in an effort to put Mitch against a former Stan Hurley protege played by Taylor Kitsch of whom we get minimal backstory for a guy meant to be the primary antagonist.  All of this adds up to the standard chase sequences, gun battles, and hand to hand combat scenes we have watched over and over again in much better films.  And each time I’ve wondered, will any of these characters actually say anything remotely interesting? An audience can only be wowed so many times by the same thing. There’s no substance here at all, only choreography and an undersized millennial who has no respect for authority.  Well, at least they got that part right.  

GRADE: C-