Updated: Feb 4, 2020
American Assassin is an action/thriller that has far more action than thrills. The characters are too thin to care about and the hero’s mission never felt important. I have to care about the characters before I can become invested in what happens to them. That never happened here which made the film a very boring 103 minutes (minus the end credits).
In the film’s opening, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien from the MTV series Teen Wolf and the Maze Runner films) is on vacation with his girlfriend. Immediately after he proposes to her, she is gunned down in a terrorist attack. The story then jumps forward more than a year later with Mitch trying to infiltrate the terrorist cell responsible for the attack. He is pulled out of his mission by the deputy director of the CIA (Sanaa Lathan, most recently one of the stars of the Fox series Shots Fired) who sees promise in him. She sends Mitch to former Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (a growling Michael Keaton) in the hopes of making him a useful asset. Eventually, they all end up working together to stop a mysterious arms dealer known only as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch).
Somehow, all of this feels perfunctory. Events occur because they are the types of things that are supposed to happen in a spy-thriller. There is no urgency to anything. The issues start with the protagonist. Mitch Rapp, as played by O’Brien, is sometimes a revenge-obsessed loose cannon, sometimes a quick-witted action hero and sometimes a loyal soldier. Since the screenplay never actually develops him beyond that opening scene, he becomes a frustrating blank. Is he a super-soldier? Or a regular guy pushed too far? The answer is that he is whatever is needed in a given scene. O’Brien is fine, but he hasn’t been given a character to play; he has been given a handful of traits. The entire cast is put in the same position. Michael Keaton fares the best as Rapp’s no nonsense trainer. However, any intrigue Hurley possesses is almost entirely due to the actor’s own natural charisma.
American Assassin is based on a novel by the late Vince Flynn. It was the eleventh Mitch Rapp book, but the first chronologically. I have been told that the series is very good. The problem with the movie is not the underlying story or the character of Mitch Rapp. It is the lack of care given to turning the novel into a compelling film.
The book was written as a prequel to show Mitch’s backstory, but the movie version of American Assassin feels like it needs its own prequel. Clearly, his fiancée’s death is a defining moment in Mitch's life, but I never got a sense of who he was before that. And the movie does not really care. It just uses his tragedy as an excuse to throw him into a bunch of action scenes. The action is fine but, without the stakes that come from a good story or relatable characters, it all just feels so routine. As created by Vince Flynn, the Mitch Rapp character is so unique and interesting that readers have bought sixteen novels about him. Yet, in his film debut, he comes off as a boring action hero.
American Assassin is competently acted with solidly staged action sequences. However, it also feels like everyone involved was just going thru the motions. It lacks energy, intensity and purpose. This isn’t a stain on the reputations of anyone involved, but they have all made better films in the past and I am sure they will all go on to make better films in the future.
2 out of 5
Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp
Michael Keaton as Stan Hurley
Sanaa Lathan as Irene Kennedy
Taylor Kitsch as Ghost
Shiva Negar as Annika
David Suchet as Director Stansfield
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Screenplay by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz