If you’re looking for a new action film to check out, American Assassin… well… is one. And it isn’t quite as poor as some of advertising might lead you to believe. However, this is what can certainly be called faint praise. If you’ve witnessed even a single action picture over the past few decades, then you won’t find anything here you haven’t seen before.
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is a young man on vacation whose fiancé is killed during a terrorist attack (which occurs mere seconds after his proposal). Furious, he devotes his life to murdering all those responsible for his lady’s death. At first, this means annoying people at shooting ranges by dangerously blasting at all of the targets on display, but soon he officially becomes a vigilante. Despite Mitch’s completely unhinged demeanor, the CIA see talent and recruit the kid for an anti-terrorism black ops unit headed by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). When plutonium goes missing and makes its way onto the black market, our hero is assigned with eliminating the threat. But while in the field, he encounters an unexpected foe in Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), Hurley’s former student.
It’s pretty preposterous stuff and the film doesn’t help itself by taking on a deadly serious tone. There’s a lot of angst on display and a weightiness to the proceedings, which contrasts sharply with some of the exaggerated, over-the-top situations. Like several genre flicks in recent memory, one could also do without the “evil foreigners” vibe presented early on. Thankfully, the story does move off of this track as events progress.
In the end, the film’s biggest burden is the hackneyed script. One can almost imagine the writers copying and pasting the format from a screenplay manual right onto the shooting page, which drains much of the suspense. The dialogue consistently reminds us that our hero is a loner, a “loose cannon” whose heart is in the right place but who doesn’t do things by the book. He’s repeatedly told by superiors that “emotion clouds his judgment,” and is told to obey orders. Yet every renegade action he takes results in success. Overall, Mitch learns a little in the process, but he doesn’t change dramatically, simply wiping out every threat he encounters in an increasingly elaborate manner. While viewers understand that he’s been through great tragedy, there isn’t much more that motivates the role.
As for Hurley, he starts off mean and nasty, but is eventually used to deliver creaky one-liners and insults to the bad guys. Keaton certainly sells the part as well as anyone can with a tough-as-nails demeanor. Still, seeing that the trainer is at least partly responsible for the central problem doesn’t help to make him the most sympathetic of supporting characters. In fact, the film’s best realized and most interesting character is villain Ghost. The cold and calculating terrorist has more layers of depth visible onscreen than all the others.
At least one can compliment the fight scenes, involving some painful-looking, hand-to-hand combat. The action choreography, while relatively simple and modest in scale, is zippy and impressive to watch. Stars O’Brien and Kitsch acquit themselves very well with the physicality of their roles. When they’re literally fighting with others or taking on each other, the movie perks up considerably.
Still, there’s nothing here that will ultimately surprise or invigorate viewers on a story-level. This is by-the-numbers stuff that could have been elevated with more engaging leads, having less of a somber tone and planting its tongue firmly in its cheek. American Assassin offers a few solid bits of action, but will quickly be forgotten by moviegoers as they leave the theater.