Director: Michael Cuesta
Genre: Action/ Thriller
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch.
There are a lot of films with the word ‘American’ in the title – think American Psycho, American Hustle, American Sniper – and American Assassin is not the only film released this month that belongs to that long list of movies (the other being American Made), though it is a lot less successful. If you take the way all these films interpret the American spirit and try to come up with some sort of conclusive definition of what it’s about, you probably will end up with something that’s frustratingly unclear and ambivalent. To say that American Assassin even attempts to explore that ambiguity would be to give it too much credit – Michael Cuesta’s latest spy thriller, based on Vince Flynn’s novel of the same name, includes the word ‘American’ in its title for seemingly no reason other than to quite simply (and blatantly) make it sound more appealing, at least to a certain target audience that the film will no doubt please. American Assassin has actually little to say about its subject – the word ‘patriotism’ is thrown out a couple of times as nothing more than merely a surface-level reference to compensate for the fact that it never comes close to establishing a thematic arc, let alone a serious and complex one. This bland indistinctiveness (and indifference) can be more offensive than saying something that’s controversial, especially when you’re dealing with heavy issues like terrorism and militarism.
The story concerns Mitch Rapp, played by Teen Wolf star Dylan O’Brien (in only his second major feature film role, following his appearance in The Maze Runner), a young man who is traumatized after his girlfriend is shot and killed in Spain during an Islamic terrorist attack, minutes after he had proposed to her while they were on vacation. Mitch is then determined to find the man responsible for her death by communicating with jihadists online in order to secure an invitation to meet him in real life. When he arrives at the terrorist cell in Libya, however, his plan to kill their leader goes wrong and he misses his chance to take revenge. Dylan O’ Brien captures the rage that this role requires fairly well and with the kind of grittiness that is more mature than his usual teen-centric roles, but this emotion is hardly a substitute for lack of character fundamentals, which is not his fault but the writers’ – in other words, the film mistakes emotion for a character trait. At least this exposition is shot in a way that evokes the sense of urgency of a fever-like nightmare – and in fact, Enrique Chediak’s cinematography is solid for much of the film, including some engagingly shot action sequences and effective close-ups. More importantly, though, these first few scenes show us Mitch’s struggle from a promisingly personal angle, something which the film immediately loses, taking away any potential it might have had.
The main part of the film follows a not too dissimilar but much less interesting narrative. After the U.S. Forces find Mitch, CIA director Irene Kennedy decides she wants to give him a chance to join a black operations unit, and he has little choice in the matter. Mitch is trained by Stan Hurley, a Cold War veteran played by Michael Keaton, who is memorable in a role that’s noticeably shallow – he can’t do much to elevate the material. Mitch feels out place, and so do we, because American Assassin lacks the necessary personality or wit to make it feel more defined. Instead of being the character study it should have been by exploring the internal conflict and realism that would have offered a lot more credibility to the film, it delves into a plot that’s not only clichéd and unremarkable but also barely riveting in any way. We also get exposed to too many characters that we cannot care for and whom we are forced to tolerate simply because we realize, probably too late, that they’re integral to the story. It seems that these secondary characters are there mainly to divert our attention from the fact that, ironically, we don’t know much about the protagonist that the film is supposed to be about.
On the surface, there’s nothing painfully terrible about American Assassin. Apart from a few questionable decisions and moments that feel rushed in production, it’s quite a watchable action movie. Ultimately, though, there’s nothing that really sticks with you apart from those opening scenes, and the film tries a lot, unsuccessfully, to make us go along with it despite how hollow it is at its core. It’s an unsatisfyingly vapid action thriller with no real resolution or even point, and you’re kind of left with a vague feeling of disappointment.