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‘American Assassin’ Almost Gets It Right

The final weeks of summer provide one of the year’s most peculiar movie release windows. Movies hauled off to this dumping ground are too late to compete with summer popcorn flicks and too early for an award season push. Sometimes a film will stand out, like 2002’s The Transporter, but you’re as likely to come across a stinker, like 2015’s The Transporter Refueled. American Assassin arrives in theatres smack-dab in the middle of that uncertain release window, packing the credentials for a breakout hit. Is director Michael Cuesta’s action thriller the next Bourne-style series, or like so many other late summer flicks, will American Assassin fail to leave its mark?

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is a young American traveller, lounging on an exotic beach with the love of his life. Timing is a real “beach,” because moments after proposing to his girlfriend, terrorists attack. The body count starts mounting as the terrorists unload a storm of gunfire on civilians. Mitch rushes to protect his fiancé, and arrives in time to see a bullet tear through her. Mitch also takes several shots and crashes to the ground only inches away from his fiancé as she bleeds to death.

Flash forward several months and Mitch has essentially become Frank Castle (aka The Punisher). He’s taken up mixed martial arts, spends hours training on the gun range, and practices hurling knives with pinpoint accuracy. In full-on Man on Fire mode, he tracks down the terrorists who killed his lady. Moments before taking his revenge, CIA agents burst in, kill Mitch’s target, and cart him off to a secret location. The CIA has been tracking Mitch’s progress, and they’ve determined his skills make him an asset. He’s scooped up and sent off to train with a grizzled instructor named Stan Hurley (a wild-eyed Michael Keaton). Even with his uncanny skills, Mitch’s need for revenge above all else still makes him a liability, but when terrorists gain the tools to detonate a nuclear bomb, Mitch, Hurley, and the rest of their team are thrown into combat regardless of whether or not they’re ready.

American Assassin looks the part of a sprawling spy movie, with globe-trotting action that spans the U.S., London, Turkey, and Rome. Oddly enough, despite the international adventure, the movie somehow feels hollow. American Assassin lacks the Bourne series’ in-your-face grittiness, and the Bond series’ exotic panache. When the camera soars over Virginian forests or glides through narrow Roman streets, the visuals come off as flat and lifeless. The camera captures images of foreign locals without translating their soul to the screen. Every shot feels cold and procedural, like experiencing London from the window of a tour bus.

People watch a movie titled American Assassin to see an American get their assassin on, and for the most part, the film delivers with solid action beats. There is an innovative segment where the operatives train in a large hanger while wearing VR goggles, and they receive shocks every time they screw up. It’s a throwaway scene that doesn’t advance the plot, but it’s original and fun to watch. The film prefers hand-to-hand combat over gunplay, and there are some impressive moments where the camera swoops right into the action. The fights are quick, intense, often deadly, and spruced up with a dash of complex choreography. The action also gets hyper-violent; combatants gouge eyes, bullets rip through bodies, and a car’s tire crushes some rotten henchman’s skull.

The action takes a grounded approach, except when it doesn’t. One asshole leaps from a window and uses the old “blade in a flag” trick to slow his fall like he’s Errol Flynn. There’s another head-slapper where Mitch scales ten stories up the side of a building in less time than it takes to skip a YouTube ad. Had American Assassin stuck to this heightened reality approach, these moments wouldn’t feel like the characters were using cheat codes.

It’s hard to knock American Assassin‘s casting choices. O’Brien looks right at home in the role of a handsome brooding loner, and he’s fine in the part, but does nothing to elevate the material. It’s Sanaa Lathan and Michael Keaton that bring credibility to the movie, so it’s disappointing when the script fails to service both of them. They stare at screens or stand face-to-face spouting exposition, but it’s Keaton who has the meatier role of the two. Hurley gets to act cool, kick some ass, and act unhinged.

Hurley is an unconventional mentor. Generally in a film like American Assassin, the hard-ass commander runs the hero through the ringer, and they eventually form a mutual respect — maybe even learn to like each other. At no point do Mitch and Hurley bond. There’s nothing heartwarming or endearing about their relationship. By the end of the movie, they’re office acquaintances…at best. Keaton’s crazy eyes are the stuff of legend, but his performance approaches Nicolas Cage-style lunacy. I hope this role opens the door to Keaton’s old-man action phase à la Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington.

American Assassin gets ridiculous, but no more so than any movie where agents chase down a nuclear threat. It’s a film I’m fine with recommending to my dad as a light afternoon watch (and that’s not a knock on my dad’s taste in action flicks). American Assassin aims to be a launchpad for a new franchise but it feels likes it’s spinning its wheels right out the gate. The script, the performances, and the action aren’t bad, but they’re nothing to go out of your way to see either. In an age with so many great entertainment options, fine equates to: “Why bother?”

Written By

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based pop culture writer and film critic who enjoys covering the city's biggest (and nerdiest) events. Victor has covered TIFF, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada for publications all over the internet. You can find his latest posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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