American Assassin – Film Score Review

Composer: Steven Price
Label: Varese Sarabande
Tracks: 14
Running time: 52 minutes

You quite often find when reviewing film scores independently of their source material that the barometer for their success lies in whether you can enjoy the listening experience outside the movie itself. American Assassin is an example of a score that doesn’t really work on its own, but could well accompany the action thriller stylistics of Michael Cuesta nicely. Composer Steven Price is concerned mainly with very synthetic beats, percussive instruments and developing a globe trotting, espionage sensibility in a serious manner. The fact is though, unfortunately, it’s almost immediately forgettable independent of the picture, to the degree that after two listens, it still wasn’t resonating in my mind.

Price is a composer who, as yet, hasn’t quite capitalised on a promising beginning to his composing career. Gravity, the Oscar-winning space-based character drama from Alfonso Cuarón, saw Price explode on the screen with a thumping, tension-building score which matched the brilliance of the film itself. Immediately, he became a talent to watch. It wasn’t his first rodeo, of course, having debuted with Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block in 2011 before scoring Edgar Wright’s ending to the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’, The World’s End, in 2013. But Gravity was the first score in which people sat up and took notice. Then came two collaborations with David Ayer: first on Fury and later on Suicide Squad, which felt as functional and messy as certainly the latter of those two films.

American Assassin does nothing to move him back onto the interesting path Gravity shunted him towards. Sure, he contributed decently to Wright’s excellent Baby Driver this year, but nobody noticed any incidental score in that film, rooted as it was in an eclectic soundtrack of rocking tunes. Price, in this latest Michael Keaton/Dylan O’Brien starring venture, employs once again a variance of ambient sounds which occasionally feel reminiscent of modern Thomas Newman (such as early in the opening track, ‘The Proposal’), but lack any similar depth of emotional substance in a film Price has talked about scoring with awareness of “the motivations and complex interrelationships between the story’s principle players”.

Lofty goals, for sure, but as a solo listening experience, that detail just doesn’t seem to be there in American Assassin. ‘Mitch Rapp’ attempts to convey a sense of urban swagger with twanging guitars and echoing synth mixed in a stylish combination of technological espionage, reflecting the spy nuts & bolts of the story, but it feels like nothing other composers haven’t given us before. Tracks bleed into each other without a sense of continuing, organic development but rather muddled noise, a fusion of brooding bass mixed with an array of mechanical, pulsing electronic sounds which do nothing to convey mood or character outside of the film. ‘I Trusted You’ later in the album is more intriguing, delivering a level of poignant mystery, but it’s too little too late.

Honestly, the score to American Assassin probably works fine in the context of its movie. Steven Price is by no means a poor talent, and there are fleeting moments here which suggest a stronger score lurks underneath what ends up being quite a functional, unmemorable piece of work, but one yearns again for the impactful beauty of his work on Gravity. Right now, he’s sadly not operating in the same league.

The score to American Assassin is now available on Varese Sarabande records.

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