American Assassin opens on Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), our handsome action hero, proposing to his girlfriend (Charlotte Vega) on a beach in Spain. Because we need Rapp to become a grizzled action hero with a chip on his shoulder, decked out in a scraggly beard so that we know he’s in grief, his girlfriend has to die in a random act of violence.
Enter the CIA in the form of the dueling ideologies of Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) and Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). They recruit Rapp in an elite anti-terrorism unit, a unit so cutthroat that it is an every-man-left-behind mentality.
From there, American Assassin becomes a basic action movie narrative that is only redeemable for the ham-fisted performance from Keaton.
The other acting performances in the film range from the blank slate of protagonist O’Brien to the clunky one-dimensional roadblock of Lathan. And the character of Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) is never given enough emphasis to ever become a compelling main antagonist, even if Kitsch gives a relatively engaging performance.
American Assassin is scripted with pithy throwaway lines that lack any sort of nuance. The film, as a result, feels bland and disinterested in tackling anything of substance. There is a set piece here and there that is visually striking, but for the most part the film floats by on conventional beats and tired writing.
For what it’s worth, O’Brien’s ability to do the work of an action star is commendable. The set pieces do accelerate nicely with him in front of the camera, even if the story around these sequences do little to make the action worthwhile from a narrative standpoint.
That is the biggest failing of the film. American Assassin has aspirations of being a taut action thriller about the stakes of revenge, but in execution it only really seems to care about the action itself. Scenes that build up the relationship between Rapp and Hurley through training exercises seem to grasp at thematic levels that the film decides not to follow through on when the actual assignment begins.
These scenes where Keaton’s character tests O’Brien’s by prodding at the psychological trauma stemming from his fiance’s death are the most intriguing in the film. We see actual character-centered conflict, both internally and externally, as O’Brien grapples both with his new boss and his desire for revenge.
Once the manhunt for Ghost begins, however, the film flattens into the most basic of action movie storylines, and we lose sight of what makes O’Brien’s character worth watching.
What results is a movie that can do nothing but make some cash before being forgotten. Even as an action star-making project, American Assassin does not liven up the screen enough to give O’Brien that platform.
American Assassin: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)