While the resulting film is ultimately as generic as its title implies, there’s the seed of a fascinating premise buried within American Assassin, which opens in Prague and around the world this weekend.
At its core is likable young star Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner) as Mitch Rapp, who loses his girlfriend in a terrorist attack on the beaches of Ibiza in the film’s opening scene.
Mitch focuses on nothing but revenge as he shuts himself off from the rest of the world to learn Arabic, fine-tune his body in mixed martial arts, and throw knives at photographs of terrorists on his closet door.
He becomes a rage-driven sociopath a la Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, blindly lashing out at the world, but with the purpose of Death Wish’s Paul Kersey. He travels to Libya, his sole purpose to wipe out as many terrorist cells as he can with his own two hands.
Were American Assassin to focus on Mitch’s descent into Hell and the world of terrorism in Libya – as naïve as it may be – it could have been a fascinating story, transplanting the kind of revenge-movie rage against inner-city crime or political oppression in the films of the 1970s to a more topical 2017 subject of obsession: Islamic terrorism.
But as Rapp, tied to a chair and surrounded by ISIS-like Islamists holding automatic weapons, stares into the eyes of the man who killed his fiancée and prepares to cut his way through a final assault, a team of American SEAL-like commandos busts in and wipes out the cell, sparing Mitch in the process.
We’re 12 minutes into the movie.
The sociopathic Rapp, his thirst for blood unsated, is then recruited by CIA official Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) and sent to train in the woods with hard-ass instructor Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) and so on and so forth and the next 90 minutes becomes a generic Bourne-lite globetrotting action movie.
Generic, yes, but Keaton is a real hoot – as you might expect – and Lathan (in the Viola Davis Suicide Squad role) and Shiva Negar, as a fellow CIA agent, offer solid support. And O’Brien is a genuinely charismatic lead; his character here is terribly underwritten (no backstory besides a throwaway line about dead parents), but he holds things together regardless.
Still, one of Rapp’s fellow trainees is played by Scott Adkins, who I kept wishing was the lead; Adkins can carry a generic B-movie like no other (see the surprisingly awesome Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning – seriously) but Hollywood still hasn’t found out how to use him.
The plot proper doesn’t involve ISIS-like terrorist cells but instead rogue Iranian officials and their quest for nuclear weapons, and the mysterious American called Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) who assists them throughout Europe as the film moves from Warsaw to Istanbul and finally Rome.
It’s odd to see Kitsch – whose path to stardom was waylaid by the back-to-back bombs of John Carter and Battleship a half decade ago – in a villainous role, but he displays the kind of range that might help his career get back on track. Side note: he looks so similar to O’Brien here (despite being 10 years his senior) that I occasionally had trouble telling them apart.
As generic as it is, American Assassin is certainly watchable – even as it checks off the box after box that includes a big CGI finale – but ultimately a big missed opportunity that crams a fascinating premise into a standard-fare actioner.
Director Michael Cuesta (of the underseen Kill the Messenger) is perhaps best-known for his work on Showtime’s excellent terrorism-themed Homeland – a all-around better venue to explore the kind of compelling story elements that American Assassin seems to desperately sidestep.