After his fiancé is murdered by terrorists, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) goes on a one-man war against the cell responsible. His activities draw the attention of the CIA, who recruit him to become an assassin for America.
Rapp is soon on a new mission to stop a former agent (Taylor Kitsch) with a nuclear weapon intent on death and mayhem.
Vince Flynn is one of those thriller novelists I've seen on the shelves but I've never bothered to read. Hopefully his books are better than this movie, because it's been less than a day since I've seen it and I can barely remember what happened.
Sometimes you watch a movie and all you can see is the movie it desperately wants to be. American Assassin has all the ingredients of something decent: a great cast, a focus on the protagonist's psychology, as well as the old standbys of fights, explosions and pointless hot chicks. The fact that all these elements are also the building blocks for a hundred Redbox rentals and direct-to-streaming dreck should also be an indicator for how far this movie fails to engage as a theatre experience.
American Assassin is stuck between these two poles, offering early promise that it is more than it's generic title, before completely falling off a cliff into mind-numbing mediocrity.
The cast are mostly solid. O'Brien is strangely believable as a baby-faced killer; Sanaa Lathan and David Suchet add a little class (but not much else); and Taylor Kitsch is completely vanilla as the psycho bad guy. The highlight is Michael Keaton as Rapp's taciturn instructor in the art of American Assassin-ing. He brings his offbeat intensity to what could have been just a gruff cliché, and it adds a little bit of spice to the otherwise bland proceedings. I don't know why they just didn't make him the bad guy.
The movie is at its most interesting in its first act, as the script moves economically through his transformation from traumatised victim to hardened vigilante, coolly tracking down the cell responsible for killing his fiancé. From there the movie turns into a conventional 'loose nuke' story - complete with an obvious double agent and a finale in which our hero has to go rogue to get the job done.
The script wants to be a bit deeper than a simple action movie - it makes reference to the parallels between the villain, a fellow agent who lost his mind, and Rapp's own inability to keep the mission and his own murderous desires separate. This is a solid foundation for a character in an action movie (or any movie, really), but this movie never clarifies exactly what Rapp's flaw is, mostly because his flaw is a need for violent retribution, and that is what his enablers/employers are in the business of doing.
The character arc is clearly meant to be Rapp learning to not let his emotions get in the way of being an assassin for America, but this is just lip service in the movie. There is a creepy implication from the CIA bigwigs that they are eager to use Rapp because of his psychotic drive to kill, something which they have been unable to find in their other American Assassins. This attempt at moral ambiguity is blunted by the movie's celebratory focus on Rapp's inability to follow orders. The movie ends with his bosses unable to track him down. While they bumble about Stateside, the movie ends on Rapp as he is about to assassinate the next president of Iran. The character does not really change that much from the beginning of the movie until the end, apart from the fact that he learns how to properly stab a dude in the neck. He is a stone-cold killer at the beginning, and is a stone-cold killer at the end. So much for character depth.
In the end, the movie feels like a 20 page treatment for a generic spy movie, rather than a fleshed-out story. All the key beats are there, but they have no connective tissue tying them together. The movie just winds up feeling like a bad network TV pilot, hinting at storylines which will be explored across 22 episodes. This is one of those projects that clearly needed a few more minutes in the oven.
Even with a generic script, something entertaining could have been salvaged by the direction, but sadly it is not much more inspired. While he avoids shaky cam, Michael Cuesta does not show a lot of imagination or understanding of dramatic staging, particularly in the fight scenes. The angles and cuts are often confusing and fail to establish a clear sense of geography. There is a sequence in a Turkish bar in which a key piece of plot info is revealed, our hero and villain meet for the first time, and a semi-important character dies. Watching the scene, I could not even describe the room, let alone where characters were within the room. There is an overreliance on coverage, and a disinterest in scene-setting which reinforces why this movie feels like it belongs on the small screen.
The art direction and choice of locations does not help. A large portion of the movie is set in Rome and Istanbul. You would not know because the movie takes place in shadowy rooms, tunnels and back alleys. It just feels banal. In the case of the tunnels, they evoked the similar tunnel used in episodes of Alias back in the day. This lack of care is evident in the one set that does pop - a hotel room with a massive floor-to-ceiling window, against which Rapp battles an arms dealer's bodyguard.
Wow, I am amazed I had that much to say about this movie. American Assassin is not an aggressively bad movie, but it is an exceptionally dull and uninteresting one. Which is even worse.
On this evidence, O'Brien and Keaton deserve another shot at an action franchise, but for Mitch Rapp, the mission is over.