For a movie that seems to at least attempt to start out with a sense of realism, it loses me as soon as it tries to suggest that Dylan O’Brien is somehow a better fighter than Scott Adkins. Yeah, sure. Way to put your best foot forward, movie.
The film in question here is American Assassin, the adaptation of the Vince Flynn novel of the same name, which is directed by Michael Cuesta. Dylan O’Brien plays Mitch, a guy who we open with losing his fiancé to a terrorist attack, and goes forth devoting his life to kill the guy responsible, and all other terrorists he can gets his hands on. He’s picked up by CIA Deputy Director, Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), to go in training as a black ops recruit under Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). He eventually proves himself more than capable and finds himself on a mission against someone trying to create a nuclear weapon, who turns out to be “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), a former trainee of Hurley’s.
Yeah, if that sounds like a million other action movies you’d seen before…well, you’d be right. It’s about as basic as any espionage action thriller. Hell, it practically feels like a relic of the late 90s in many ways. The problem isn’t necessarily that it’s predictable, that doesn’t bug me, it’s just that the film never really finds its footing in any significant way. We start off with a brutal attack (even if it’s undercut by some distracting CG blood), and as the film goes, it plays things in a subdued way, in a very self serious way. But as the twist and turns begin to take hold, it all starts to feel kind of…off. It doesn’t take long before the realism established is throw out the window in favor of ridiculous action beats, which wouldn’t be a problem if those action beats were remotely interesting or engaging.
It’s also a very emotionally cold movie. It’s driven by Mitch wanting revenge, which is fine enough, but whatever humanity the film has it lost as soon as his fiance gets that bullet in her chest. The action seems to be aiming for white knuckle thrills, but it only comes across as unnecessarily mean, as bystanders get caught in crossfire, and the way Mitch never seems to react whenever one of his allies gets killed. It’s even more troubling considering the problematic political implications. Mitch has told by Hurley several times that when it comes to the mission, things should never be personal, and that he shouldn’t let emotions get in the way. However, it feels like the character ignores the advice and the film takes it instead, losing any semblance of a personal touch.
The film sometimes touches on something that could be interesting. A lot of times, Mitch would take things too far. One training exercise ended with him shooting a woman multiple times for really no reason, and he later beats up a woman, who he suspects is a traitor (and I just realize now that the women seem to get substantially more victimized here, which a whole other can of worms). You could do something interesting where Mitch can be some kind of psychopath being let loose by the government. Even the film occasionally frames him as being kind of crazy, but it ultimately doesn’t go anywhere with that idea.
I’ve noticed Hollywood really trying to push Dylan O’Brien as a thing, and I’m still not fully convinced. I can sometimes see a compelling screen presence, but I don’t think he’s quite there yet, and he certainly hasn’t gotten any material that could bring something genuine out of him. Scott Adkins is wasted, which should be considered a punishable offense at this point. There’s a semblance of something compelling with Annika (Shiva Negar), a Turkish agent, but that also doesn’t get the time it deserves. Taylor Kitsch is…fine, I guess. The only one who at least looks like he’s having a good time here is – of course – Michael Keaton. He’s so good that he can make a scene where he’s getting tortured be totally delightful.
American Assassin isn’t all bad, though. It’s the kind of action film you watch with your dad when there’s nothing else on TV. It’s serviceable for the kind of film it is, but still utterly disposable. Some moments are tense, it thankfully keeps the whole affair just under two hours, and the actors certainly try their best to ground the whole thing. It’s a shame since director, Michael Cuesta, has had a rock solid track record up until this point (I recommend his 2001 debut L.I.E., and his last film, Kill the Messenger). Whatever made the book special to its fans is likely nowhere to be found here, and though the film is far from terrible, it has no place within the current political climate, and it lacks anything exceptional of merit to argue otherwise. Your time and money is best spent elsewhere. I mean, at least Atomic Blonde had some style.