Directed by Michael Cuesta and based on the series of novels by the late Vince Flynn, American Assassin tells the story of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien). After his fiancé is viciously gunned down by terrorists, Rapp dedicates his life to eliminating them. When he is discovered by the CIA, he is recruited to be a counter-terrorism operative in a black ops program and trained by tough-as-nails veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton).
American Assassin is just one of fifteen Vince Flynn novels featuring the character of Mitch Rapp. The idea, of course, is for this to be the first film in a franchise, as is always the case these days. So, does the film show the potential to kick start a whole series of Mitch Rapp movies? Read on to find out…
Going into this film, I did not know how to feel about the casting of Dylan O’Brien as this character. I’ve never read any of Flynn’s books, so I didn’t know much about the Mitch Rapp character, but I initially found it a bit tough to buy “the kid” from The Maze Runner and Teen Wolf as what is supposed to be this badass assassin (by the way, that “kid” is 26). He just reads too young on screen to be taken seriously as an action star. Hell, just a little over a year ago he was one of the actors rumored to be up for the role of Spider-Man. Again, these were the thoughts running through my mind on my way into the theater. However, credit where credit’s due, I was pleasantly surprised by O’Brien in this film. I thought he managed to pull off the emotional heavy-lifting, as well as all the action, pretty damn well. There was even a handful of humorous moments that he made work for him. He still has such a babyface, though, and that did distract me a bit at times, but he was definitely putting in the effort to make you look past that. I’ll admit it, he impressed me in this film simply because my expectations were so low.
I don’t know if we’ll be seeing a whole slew of Dylan O’Brien action movies any time soon, but if this film is a financial hit, who knows? Stranger things have happened. With the studio’s hopes for a potential franchise on their hands, the casting does make sense. The studio chose to start with the prequel story (American Assassin was the eleventh book in publication order), so they went with a younger lead to start him off at the beginning of his story. We’ll have to wait and see if this film is successful enough to kick off a new franchise before determining if this was the right call, but I’d say it worked out okay enough for this film.
For me, the biggest attraction for American Assassin was Michael Keaton co-starring as Rapp’s trainer, Stan Hurley, and he’s fantastic as always. The last few years have been great for Keaton fans, with the actor turning in phenomenal performances in films like Birdman, The Founder and Spotlight, not to mention his return to comic book films this year as the Vulture in Sony and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. While this film as a whole might not be as strong as those, I thought Keaton delivered yet another wonderful performance in this film. At the age of 66, he is so believable as the badass veteran who can physically dominate his much younger trainees, seemingly without expending any effort. Keaton was easily the best part of the film. He too had some funny moments, some of which actually harkened back to the “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!” scene in Batman for me.
The main goal of Rapp’s team’s mission is to track down a former operative gone rogue known as “The Ghost,” played by Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch is one of those handful of actors over the past few years that Hollywood desperately tried to sell us as the next big movie star (along with others like Sam Worthington and Jai Courtney). The former Gambit has not had the best track record in recent years when it comes to blockbusters, but he has put in a few great performances here and there. I’m not the biggest fan of his. Truthfully, I didn’t even know it was Kitsch until the end credits, but I still thought he was pretty good in this film. He needs more roles like this and less starring roles in ill-conceived board game adaptations.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, Sanaa Lathan was solid as CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy, who recruits Rapp. I also really liked Shiva Negar as Annika, another undercover operative who has a decent enough chemistry with O’Brien in certain scenes. Scott Adkins played Victor, yet another operative, and while he did everything required of him in the part, I do wish he was given a bit more to work with than just the simple tough guy role. Another cast member who I was pleased to see was Navid Negahban, who was excellent as Abu Nazir on Homeland. His role here, as Minister Behurz, was a relatively small one, but he is a strong actor, so he made the part stand out for me.
I thought Michael Cuesta, who is known mostly for his television work on shows like Dexter and Homeland, did a fine job of directing American Assassin. The visuals were pretty solid for the most part. Some beautiful locations were utilized, as well as some decent production design. The only visual element that wasn’t entirely up to snuff for me was some CGI, especially in the film’s climax, as well as a few wonky digital gunshot wound blood effects here and there. Other things in the film that I took issue with were some instances of stilted dialogue and less than stellar performances in a couple of minor supporting roles. Also, I would have liked for the story to go a bit deeper with some of the dramatic beats that it only tip-toes around. Finally, one thing that bugged the hell out of me was that there were far too many scenes where these operatives, who are all supposed to be trained black-ops agents, are undercover in the field, and instead of remaining inconspicious, they are just flat out staring at their target while making no effort at all to maintain their cover. That’s like day one stuff!
American Assassin definitely felt like it was going for the whole Tom Clancy vibe, but it didn’t quite hit the mark. The closest thing in recent years that I would liken the film to in terms of tone and action style is the Bourne films, but it doesn’t exactly live up to that either. However, with its R-rating, this film was a bit more violent than the PG-13 Bourne franchise. It’s definitely a lot bloodier and has a lot more course language. American Assassin definitely will not be held up against the best of the Tom Clancy or Bourne films, and I doubt it will prove to be as successful financially without a star like Matt Damon in the lead, but in terms of simple entertainment value, I think it does the job okay enough. It had the potential to be something more, though. It doesn’t break any new ground in the genre and I don’t really see this version of Mitch Rapp becoming the next Jack Ryan, but if you’re into political thrillers at all, you might find what you’re looking for here.