Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch
Director: Micheal Cuesta
Running Time: 112 mins
Synopsis: On vacation with his fiancé in Ibiza Mitch Rapp (O’Brien) witnesses her being gunned down after a terroist attack strikes the resort. In his grief he trains and hones himself into a formidable fighter, determined to hunt down the perpetrators. This raises the attention of the CIA, who enlist him to be an assassin, under the tutelage of famed agent Stan Hurley (Keaton). Soon they have to stop a nuclear plot instigated by Hurley’s former protege Ghost (Kitsch).
I may be paraphrasing here but there is an adage that if you try to be everything to everyone then you risk becoming nothing to nobody (go with me here because there is also the distinct possibility I made this all up). In filmic terms the truth is plain and simple, mixing together different tones and genres is a delicate balancing act. It can be done but it requires a deft touch and no small measure of confidence. Something that American Assassin sadly has little of. Based on a series of novels (11 and counting) featuring ‘everyman’ turned spy Mitch Rapp, with the first (probably last) filmic adaptation uncomfortably trying to be Homeland, Bourne and Roger Moore era Bond at the same time.
Events begin rather promisingly as we are introduced to our hero hopelessly in love and proposing to his girlfriend whilst holidaying in sunny Ibiza. No sooner has the crowd cheering and champagne popping commenced before gunmen callously and brutally open fire on the sunseekers. Palpably reminiscent of horrific real life terrorist atrocities, it is a bracingly visceral opening. Bodies shredded by gunfire, blood clouding the calming swimming pools and Mitch desperately searching for his future wife. Coldly executed in front of his eyes, it is apparent that this event is likely to turn this young man into a broken shell. Cut to 18 months later and Mitch has become a brooding individual, honing his body in regular gym fighting sessions and sporting that token depressive fashion statement, the scraggly beard. In his grief he has determined to hunt down the perpetrators of the beach violence, creating an online Islamic extremist persona to ingratiate himself in their midst, eliciting the attentions of the CIA in the process.
There was potential for this side of the story to be dramatically interesting. Mitch desperately trying to become one of their number and taking them down from within could have been a vital tense filled film escapade, him hopelessly out of his depth. Instead the movie veers wildly to the narrative extreme by turning Mitch into an unstoppable killing machine with very little effort. Capable of speaking multiple languages fluently, shooting guns like a pro and getting closer to a powerful terrorist cell in 18 months than the CIA have managed in years. It’s all a little far-fetched, which would not be a problem if the film chose to ride this wave throughout its running time, alas that is not the intention here.
Abandoning the storytelling potential of Mitch’s driven hunt, he is then recruited into the CIA to be a part of their elite Black-Ops group spearheaded by gruff veteran Stan Hurley (Keaton). The film morphs into a typically gritty training montage piece, Hurley battering Mitch with borderline cruel techniques to remove him from his overbearing grief. Keaton can play authoritative gruffness in his sleep and is easily the strongest performer here, with his occasional callous quips providing some much needed levity. A torture sequence is given a surprisingly humorous ferocity thanks to Keaton’s gift for animalistic line delivery. As you can imagine student and teacher begin to foster a potent bond, and must work together on Mitch’s first mission in the field. Said mission brings us into another tonal shift, this time the cheesy histrionics of an 80s era Bond movie, as a stolen nuclear weapon comes into play. Whilst the context of said bomb makes sense, the US-Iranian nuclear treaty, it sits awkwardly next to quiet political conversational scenes. These moments echo similar sequences from TVs Homeland (director Michael Cuesta is a producer of said show) but with less of the smarts or wit that series consistently delivers.
These dialogue moments are all for nought anyway as the film largely forgets any of this geo-political detail in favour of Mitch’s wilful abandoning of Hurley’s carefully constructed plans and a frankly alarming degree of movie sadism. American Assassin is not just violent it is excessively violent. I have nothing wrong with violence per se, but with this level of brutish murdering it should mean something. Endemic of the films overall tonal confusion the violence can be successfully troubling, as in the opening sequence’s intense massacre, or played as something gleefully anarchic such as when a faceless goon is senselessly mown down by a speeding car, the camera cutting to watch his body being hideously ripped apart. It leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Cuesta manages to stir up a few solid action set-pieces, although the less said about the woefully stupid poorly CGI’d finale the better, but was at a loss from the very start with a script that is just too unsure of itself. You can see this in the performances too. Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner) is blandly acceptable in the lead role, however you can see that he seems amiss about how he is supposed to be playing it, for evidence of this just look at the random funny quips he makes in all of two instances before returning to his bland brooding self again. It also doesn’t help that the story chooses to forget the emotional drive pushing Mitch forward towards revenge filled redemption for no reason whatsoever. Taylor Kitsch shows up mid-film as a former protege of Hurley’s but his so-called villain is neither too hammy to be a Bond style bad guy or too clever to be a calculating real-world enemy. The less said about his big plan the better as even now I still am none the wiser as to what it actually was!
American Assassin at least moves at a decent pace, but with such a whiplash changing of tones it all too easily slips into dullness. There is certainly nothing wrong with amalgamating a number of different genre references into one, in this case we have Bond, Bourne and Homeland, but it would have been nice if they’d at least made one of them work. As a franchise starter it has become the one thing it probably didn’t wish for, nothing to nobody (and yes I’m still sticking by that as a phrase people say).
Verdict: Tonally misplaced, and violently excessive, American Assassin never settles on what it wants to be meaning it flutters out of the mind as soon as the lights go up.