STARRING: Dylan O’Brien, Taylor Kitsch, Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet and Michael Keaton.
DIRECTED BY: Michael Cuesta
WRITTEN BY: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz
Based on Vince Flynn’s 2010 book of the same name, American Assassin is the first story of a possible sixteen-film series that focuses on counter-terrorism specialist Mitch Rapp. The only question is: does CBS Films’ spy thriller kickstart the franchise to warrant that much staying power?
After seeing his new fiancé killed during a terrorist attack on a Spanish beach, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is consumed with a need for vengeance against the people that took everything away from him. A year and a half after the attack, Rapp’s focus has made him an expert marksman, a proficient hand-to-hand combatant, and fluent in Arabic.
His attempts to contact the jihadist cell that carried out the attack brings him to the attention of the CIA; and, more specifically, to Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) who oversees a black ops division. She recruits Rapp into a team run by Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Now Rapp, Hurley and the team must stop a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon in the Middle East, planned and executed by a rogue former US agent known only as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch).
As starting blocks for franchise pieces go, American Assassin may not be the worst one we’ve seen, but it is certainly destined to be sharing space in the bargain bin with a few. Kill the Messenger director Michael Cuesta and The Americans writer Stephen Schiff have not only made a film that is all but unrecognisable from its source material but they have taken a straight-from-the-headlines bad guy, an enemy most people could get behind, and made possibly the least satisfying film this year.
Updating Rapp’s origin story from a man wanting revenge after his high school sweetheart is killed during the Lockerbie bombing, to an Instagram-friendly millennial who loses his girl on the beach, makes the soon-to-be super-spy not only completely unbelievable, but wholly unlikable. While his original transformation may not have been the most believable, it may have worked better here and set up a series that didn’t necessarily need to focus on the same kind of current events the impending franchise suggests it might. The fact is, however you cut it, American Assassin’s story is mediocre at best, and a generic, borderline-offensive tale born of the lowest of low hanging fruit at worst.
It’s not quite all doom and gloom, mind you, for the Tesco Value Jack Reacher that is Rapp. As casts go, this one is pretty well put together. Keaton, who still regularly steals most of the movies he appears in, convinces as the special ops veteran teaching the young breed the ways of old fashioned espionage. While the role doesn’t stretch his capabilities at all, even once he finds himself in a cringe inducing torture scene, the Batman star is always a joy to watch. Lathan, Kitsch and Iranian actress Shiva Negar bring up the rear with great performances all round. Also especially fun to watch is Taylor “one time Gambit” Kitsch getting his hands dirty as the bad guy that used to be a good guy. You may even find yourself rooting for him, great as he is.
Overall, for an action thriller, American Assassin needed more action and more thrills. Worth a watch to see what all the players involved can do with what they have been given, but it’s probably one to catch when it gets a Saturday night premiere on Film 4.
American Assassin is now on general release.