In case you hadn’t heard, action movies are enjoying quite the renaissance as of late. Unfortunately for American Assassin, that means each new entry into the genre has got to actually distinguish itself in some way to stand out from the crowd (and this movie doesn’t, in a big way). Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland) delivers a first film into what is certainly intended to be the next Tom Clancy-esque franchise that’s a flat, boring slog, devoid of any semblance of unique personality or charms. Hell, it doesn’t even bother to offer up one or two half-decent set pieces, hoping that the Obi-Wan Kenobi/Luke Skywalker dynamic between its budding international killer, Mitch Rapp (The Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien), and an old school counterterrorist guru (Michael Keaton) is enough to float the (admittedly meager) sub-two hour runtime. It isn’t.
American Assassin begins promisingly enough – on a beach in Ibiza (or, at least, Thailand standing in for the Spanish archipelago), where Rapp proposes to his beautiful girlfriend Katherine (Charlotte Vega) and then she gets shot down in her snow white bikini by a crew of Muslim terrorists. Storming the picture-perfect scene in the now genre standard ostentatious long take, Cuesta goes all hand held camera amidst the bullet-riddled chaos, as machine guns are fired at the vacationers and Mitch desperately tries to corral himself and his new fiancée to safety. He fails, and the movie picks up eighteen months later, where the boyish rogue now sports a scraggly beard (to let his know how intense he is), packed on thirty pounds of muscle, trained in MMA, guns and Islamic scripture, and is ready to take down the world of terrorists all on his own. It’s the sort of problematic “white savior” nonsense that, in the wake of any exemplary stylistic tics, would’ve at least made Cuesta’s film engaging in a “well, at least this is problematic and weird” sort of way.
Unfortunately, American Assassin can’t even commit to its own upsetting, right wing politics, as his one man crusade against the brown menace who took his love away is quickly abandoned in favor of the aforementioned mentor/tutor relationship that takes up the majority of the film’s second act. Rapp’s search history and late night chats with jihad organizers (“I want to go on vacation,” he tells the terrorists, and it’s unclear if the filmmakers get their own irony) catches the eye of CIA director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). In a move that’s baffling by even this moronic movie’s standards (how this adaptation of Vince Flynn’s potboiler origin story required four screenwriters is perhaps the biggest mystery of all), the Intelligence Chief does what no rational person would: she recruits the traumatized, single-mindedly murderous boy into the Agency’s ranks, pairing him with ex-Navy SEAL and Persian Gulf Vet Stan Hurley (Keaton) to be trained on his wilderness compound.
Mitch’s trials and tribulations during his training to become Jack Ryan Lite aren’t particularly interesting, even when he’s pitted against DTV superstar Scott Adkins (who sports the name Victor and is given zero backstory). We need to talk about Hollywood’s Scott Adkins Problem™. The man is already a legend – easily the best onscreen action performer in the Western arena, his body a veritable weapon that he’s able to flip, contort and wield in front of a wide lens without the aid of trick cuts. Why major motion pictures keep casting him in these anonymous side roles (and unceremoniously killing him off before allowing him to showcase his skills) is one of the most frustrating conundrums in all of modern genre cinema. Here he is again, given a single fight scene, and then barely anything else to do. Dear creatives, recognize the gift that is Scott Adkins. He doesn’t necessarily need to be the lead in an $80 million movie, but at least let him fuck some shit up in your big budget trash.
Meanwhile, O’Brien’s Rapp becomes embroiled in a post-spy camp A-Plot involving a white terrorist named “Ghost” (an exceptionally uncharismatic Taylor Kitsch) who we can barely tell apart from our hero in a physical sense, because they look so alike at times (these wispy beards aren’t helping matters, filmmaker friends). These larger productions need to start taking take cues from their DTV counterparts (side note: do yourself a favor and rent Adkins’ Savage Dog on VOD ASAP), or they’re doomed to pale in comparison to movies that cost the equivalent of American Assassin’s catering budget, yet still sport more impressive brutality. The globe-trotting location shooting – which traverses from Malta to Istanbul to Tripoli to Romania to Roanoke to Rome – only goes so far when your $12 fisticuff choreography, gun fights and car chases don’t even stack up to a night with $3 Redbox choas and a $6 pack of Bud Heavy.
Furthermore, it’s strange that American Assassin would be the kickstarter to this potential franchise, as Mitch Rapp has been de-aged to an almost unnatural degree from the books (where he was forged in the fires of the ’88 Lockbrie bombing, losing his high school sweetheart). Instead of the hardened professional the late author’s novels present, we get this fresh faced Millennial who probably wouldn’t remember 9/11, and whose self-taught counter-intel skills lend him an almost supernatural ability that Hurley really only builds on by showing him a chokehold and warning Rapp about the dangers of getting “too personal”. The irony, of course, is that “Ghost” (an invention of the film’s and not Flynn’s) was a former pupil of the SEAL’s, but we never really give a fuck about any of that because Rapp’s development is self-conceived, not nurtured. The movie’s a narrative disaster, never congealing into anything remotely coherent, in terms of linear storytelling or basic theme.
American Assassin sucks. It sucks as an action film. It sucks as a political thriller. It sucks as a Tom Clancy knock-off. It just plain sucks. It’s a nothing void of a motion picture, so lacking in character that one cannot believe there wasn’t at least a single member of the creative team who perked up during production and said “we’ve gotta stand out from the crowd in some way, right?” Cuesta’s film is so beige and unmemorable that this writer struggled to recall any sort of palpable plot details mere hours after the credits rolled. In our current landscape of superlative action cinema, this movie is little more than time filler for a Friday night, when you’re bored and need background noise. But even then, the set pieces are so sporadically placed, all you’ll hear is Steven Price’s anonymous, bombastic score as your eyes glaze over from sheer tedium. Just watch John Wick for the thirtieth time, and forget this failed attempt at Mitch Rapp exists.