Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Michael Cuesta
Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton Sanaa Lathan, Taylor Kitsch, Shiva Neger, Scott Adkins, David Suchet, Shahid Ahmed, Charlotte Vega, Navid Negahban.
This attempt to kick start another pacy and violent spy thriller franchise featuring an indestructible hero to rival the likes of Bond, Bourne or Jack Reacher is a fairly generic action yarn.
American Assassin is the first film to feature the character of Mitch Rapp, a counter terrorist agent for the CIA, who was created by the late Vince Flynn, an American thriller writer, in 1999’s Transfer Of Power. Flynn wrote 12 books featuring the character of Rapp, a former college student who turned counter terrorist to avenge the murder of his fiancee at the hands of terrorists. Rapp is the sort of deadly efficient spy who believes that the only good terrorist is a dead one, and in the novels his character has thwarted numerous terrorist threats. In 2010 Flynn bowed to pressure from fans to give us the origins story of the character with the eleventh book in the series American Assassin.
Rapp (played here by Dylan O’Brien, from tv series Teen Wolf and the dystopian YA sci-fi series The Maze Runner) is out for revenge after his fiancee is killed in a deadly terrorist attack on a Spanish coastal resort. He manages to track down the terrorist mastermind Adman Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed) and infiltrate his inner circle, which brings him to the attention of CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, from comedies like The Best Man, etc). She recruits him to join a CIA Black Ops team specialising in counter terrorist operations. He is sent to a remote facility where he is trained by veteran operative Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, slumming it). Hurley is initially distrustful of the rookie for fear that he reminds him too much of a brash former protege who is presumed dead after a failed mission.
After completing his training, Rapp is teamed with Hurley and Annika (Shiva Neger), a Turkish agent whose loyalties are uncertain, and sent on a mission to investigate some weapons grade plutonium that is being offered on the black market. The pursuit takes Rapp to Istanbul, Rome, Warsaw, and many other exotic locations, and leads him to the shadowy figure known as “Ghost”, (played by Taylor Kitsch, from Battleship, John Carter, etc), Hurley’s former protégé, who is very much alive and plotting a nuclear attack on the seventh fleet. Rapp though is a bit of a lone wolf and volatile hot head who disobeys orders, much to Hurley’s frustration.
American Assassin is a gritty but generic spy thriller that seems grounded in the 90s style of action movies, with plenty of violent shootouts, car chases, exotic locations and carefully choreographed fight sequences. Emmy award winning director Michael Cuesta (Homeland, the feature film Kill The Messenger, starring Jeremy Renner, etc) handles the action well. The opening beach massacre is pretty strong stuff and gives the material a sense of topicality and a timely feel. The film is suffused with plenty of gung-ho flag waving American patriotism. Cuesta’s direction brings a kinetic energy to the formulaic plot, aided by Conrad Buff’s frenetic editing which gives the material the same sort of urgency that Paul Greengrass brought to the Bourne films.
The film has been nicely shot by veteran cinematographer Enrique Chediak (Deepwater Horizon, The Maze Runner, etc) and he makes good use of the varied European locations. There is also the clichéd nuclear countdown – a cinematic device that reached a low point with Roger Moore’s Bond in clown face – that grates. And the film is let down by some dodgy CGI created special effects during the climactic sequence in which a tsunami hits the seventh fleet, wreaking havoc.
Cast against type, O’Brien brings a physicality to this role here and he finds a gritty edge for his character. For fans of the books though he seems miscast – much the same way that fans of the Jack Reacher novels felt that Tom Cruise was initially miscast. Keaton, whose career has undergone a renaissance with solid performances in back to back Oscar winning films like Birdman and Spotlight, chews the scenery at every opportunity. He is the best thing here. The cast also includes martial arts star Scott Adkins, who is largely wasted and given little to do, and David Suchet (tv’s Hercules Poirot) as Thomas Stansfield, the director of the CIA.
A quartet of screenwriters including Stephen Schiff (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and tv series The Americans, etc), Michael Finch, Ed Zwick (Glory, etc) and Marshall Herskovitz (Jack Reacher, etc) have fashioned the screenplay, but this is something of a mishmash combining some elements of the titular novel with the nuclear terror threat drawn from other novels in the series. And they have changed the ethnicity of the main villain here, probably to appease some minority groups.
American Assassin is a serviceable enough action thriller and a good introduction for the character of Rapp, but whether it will be strong enough to kick start a new franchise remains to be seen.