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Review: American Assassin (2017)

American Assassin (2017)

Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Premise: Based on the novel by Vince Flynn. An American survivor (Dylan O’Brien) of a terrorist attack is recruited by a covert agency that assassinates terrorist cells. Things get complicated when a former member of the team shows up in the middle of a nuclear bomb plot.

What Works: The opening sequence of American Assassin is appropriately shocking. Apparently based on a real life incident in Tunisia, a group of jihadist gunman storm a beachfront resort and murder Western tourists. The opening is well handled and the filmmakers capture the horror of terrorist violence in a way that lends some emotional stakes to the rest of the movie. Dylan O’Brien plays Mitch Rapp, a young man whose fiancé was murdered on the beach, and O’Brien does an excellent job in the dramatic moments. His character is consumed by rage and the grief over his loss simmers underneath O’Brien’s performance. Swearing revenge on the people who killed his fiancé, Rapp trains himself in combat techniques and infiltrates the terrorist organization only to be picked up by an American counterterrorism agency and drafted into its service. From there Rapp is put under the mentorship of a grizzled military veteran, played by Michael Keeton. As usual, Keeton brings a lot to the role and his energy and charisma elevates what might otherwise be a mundane character. As an action movie, American Assassin is acceptable. This is the post-9/11 version of the movies that Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal were making thirty years ago. Taken simply as an action picture, American Assassin is satisfactory. The action sequences are mostly credible and competently staged and the film establishes dramatic stakes and follows them through.

What Doesn’t: Nothing about American Assassin is particularly distinguished and nothing in it is memorable. The movie’s conventionality is more of a liability for American Assassin than it would be for the average action picture because the premise flirts with big ideas and real world implications. To invoke the specter of radical jihadist violence and to begin the movie with a fictionalized version of an actual terrorist attacks signals to the viewer that this movie has something to say and that it wants to be taken seriously. But American Assassin is unable to martial its ideas and its story into anything more than a by-the-numbers elite solider story. Part of the problem is that the moviemakers don’t seem to have a firm perspective on violence. American Assassin begins as a story of how grief and anger can become a self-destructive obsession. Then the film shifts to suggest that terrorist guerilla violence must be met with the same and then it shifts again to imply that counterterrorism breeds its own villains. There’s the potential for something interesting and even provocative here but the ideas aren’t treated with any kind of competence. American Assassin’s lackluster theme is exacerbated by its lack of character. Rapp is only defined by his grief and the movie doesn’t provide him with a meaningful character arc. Everyone else in the movie is generic. Michael Keaton’s character is the typical grizzled military figure and the film squanders the kernel of an interesting subplot while Sanaa Lathan is cast as the no-nonsense pantsuit-wearing professional woman done much better in the Jason Bourne films. For a movie that wants to be taken seriously, not much in American Assassin makes much sense. The very idea that this self-taught recruit with no combat experience would be preferable to a military veteran is stupid and it’s never clear why O’Brien’s character is somehow better suited for the job.

Bottom Line: American Assassin meets the basic minimum standards for a movie like this. It is competently made and has just enough action to keep the viewer entertained but it’s also entirely forgettable and squanders a good cast. 

Episode: #666 (September 24, 2017)