American Assassin (2017)

Assassins aren’t born. They’re made.

Watching American Assassin, I couldn’t help but feel bad for Taylor Kitsch. Here’s a guy that was projected to become the next big thing (about five years ago) when he headlined tentpole flicks such as John Carter (2012) and Battleship (2012) — both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Sadly, poor box office receipts proved otherwise, with Kitsch failing to land another starring role after his string of lackluster performers. Had things turned out differently, Kitsch probably would’ve been playing the lead in American Assassin rather than the movie’s villain, Ghost. Of course, the starring role has been given to another potential up-and-comer, Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien, who portrays Mitch Rapp, a hot-headed terrorist-killing tough guy that works for the government, Lionsgate hoping to kick-start a brand new action franchise based on Vince Flynn’s best-selling series of novels.

One of the best sequences of American Assassin is arguably its first. The film opens when we meet Mitch and his radiant girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega), who are holidaying in a Spanish resort, the smitten millennial proposing to his bikini-clad partner on an idyllic beach. The glow is almost instantly shattered when a group of radical Islamic terrorists, led by Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed), attack the tourist destination, violently gunning down whoever they can hit — Mitch’s beloved pierced through the heart, in front of his helpless eyes. It’s a chilling introduction that highlights the reality of modern terrorism.

‘Okay, where’s the nearest McDonald’s?’

American Assassin then flashes forward about 18 or so months, viewers learning that Mitch has transformed into a grizzled brute, one consumed by vengeance. You see, in order to avenge his girlfriend’s execution, Mitch has trained himself in the art of firearms, combat and the Islamic language so that he can infiltrate Al-Mansur’s cell and take the terrorists out himself. Frequenting on-line message boards, where extremists quiz him about aspects of Islam and jihad, our beefed up protagonist is eventually invited to meet Al-Mansur face-to-face. Unbeknown to Mitch, however, his late night chats get him noticed by the CIA, Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) intervening before the capricious twenty-something can execute his personal revenge.

After undergoing days of debriefing in a CIA safe house, as well as a bunch of training exercises, Kennedy urges Mitch to join her black ops team (codenamed Orion), the unit headed by former Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Although the fiery trainee passes his tests with flying colors, Hurley is hesitant to take on another reckless kid, chiefly one that shares similar traits to that of his last prodigy (Taylor Kitsch), who turned out to be a volatile madman. But, when the CIA learn that missing weapons-grade plutonium has re-emerged on the black market, Mitch is sent to investigate with Iranian-born operative Annika (Shiva Negar), the pair discovering that Hurley’s former protégé could be the man behind the deals, the disgruntled trouper trying to start a war in the Middle East.

Here’s a shot you haven’t seen before!

Penned by no-less than four screenwriters — including Stephen Schiff, a scribe on FX’s The Americans (2013), and Michael Finch, The November Man (2014), along with writing duo Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) — American Assassin wants to be the next Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne type thriller, one that’s steeped in contemporary relevance, but winds up feeling more like junk food, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For starters, the grief-stricken Mitch hasn’t got much of a back-story, there’s something hazy about the death of his parents but that’s about it. Moreover, O’Brien’s shaggy character seems to possess quasi-superhuman abilities, basically becoming a one-man army who’s defined by a devil-may-care attitude — the movie clearly pandering to Middle America. Furthermore, American Assassin recycles themes of terrorism and flag-waving revenge, subjects we’ve seen a dozen times before, mainly the idea of military twisted monsters turning on their creators, Kitsch’s (miscast) villain a prime example of this — Ghost a U.S. trained soldier who was left for dead due to the ‘you are a ghost’ mantra that’s typically employed by armed forces. Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that the writers have opted to use the ‘bad apple’ card to shape their main antagonist, this perhaps to stop protesting parties from trying to get the film banned in their countries.

Directed by Michael Cuesta, Kill the Messenger (2014), American Assassin starts off as a grounded actioner, one that’s fueled by hand-to-hand scuffles and violent, bloody shootouts, the production team traveling to exotic locations such as Italy, Malta, Turkey and the United Kingdom to capture its globe-trotting scope. The movie then strangely dips into B-grade territory with a CGI-laden finale that’s reminiscent of 2015’s disaster movie San Andreas, this climactic set-piece — featuring toppling warships, nuclear blasts and spinning helicopters — throwing all reality out the window whilst coming off as a noisy Michael Bay knock-off, the effects a little too cartoon-y to dazzle.

Get this guy some duct tape cause he’s ripped!

Thankfully, the cast does the best they can with the run-of-the-mill material. Dylan O’Brien isn’t exactly the first person one would associate with this kind of role, but he does well enough as unhinged leading man Mitch, the 26-year-old convincingly going from heartthrob to badass while selling a majority of his action beats. Be that as it may, if there’s a reason to see American Assassin, it’s Michael Keaton, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). See, Keaton knows what kind of movie he’s in and delivers a deliciously entertaining portrayal of the hard-bitten ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley, the Oscar nominated star churning out lines with the growling bravado fans have come to expect from him.

Sadly, the support players don’t fare as well. Sanaa Lathan, Out of Time (2003), is wasted as a generic CIA director who spends the bulk of her scenes pacing around a room that’s full of high-tech equipment, whilst relative newcomer Shiva Negar has little-to-no personality as a sultry Turkish agent (with Iranian connections) that’s working for Hurley’s unit. Even martial arts master Scott Adkins, The Expendables 2 (2012), is squandered as Victor, one of Stan’s burly recruits who unconvincingly gets his butt kicked by Dylan O’Brien (?) lol.

… talk about a high pressure job!

All things considered, American Assassin really should’ve been more ‘fun,’ largely because it feels like one of those macho movies that would have ‘exploded’ in the ’90s. That’s not to say that films about terrorism should be light and fluffy, but considering this espionage adventure revolves around an angsty American kid who randomly ends up working for the CIA, it shouldn’t have been this stark. Having said that, American Assassin does manage to hit its target, even if only just — whether it establishes a new spy franchise, however, remains to be seen. Either way, I’d be keen to see O’Brien give the whole ‘action hero thing’ another shot!

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

American Assassin is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia