Director: Michael Cuesta
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton & Taylor Kitsch
Rating: 18 Duration: 111 minutes Release date: 15 January (UK)
Based upon the novel of the same name, American Assassin is a film stuck somewhere between Jason Bourne and John Wick. Attempting to keep a balance between stark realism and over the top violence, American Assassin is a film that isn’t sure what it wants to do and fosters an uneven tone which doesn’t really work. Fortunately, the film is saved by solid performances from Dylan O’Brien and Michael Keaton as the elite CIA operative and his headstrong new protegé.
The film starts with Mitch Rapp (O’Brien) holidaying with his girlfriend and soon to be fiancé. Things soon take a grim turn as, after successfully proposing, the beach where they are holidaying is attacked by terrorists and a massacre takes place which is hauntingly familiar. Bent on revenge, we pick up with Rapp 18 months later as he is preparing to infiltrate the terrorist cell that killed his fiancé. While mostly successful in his plan, Mitch is face to face with his enemy when US Special Forces break in and kill the terrorists while apprehending Mitch in the process. Impressed by Mitch’s one man army, the CIA seek to recruit him and put him under the guidance of former Navy Seal Stan Hurley (Keaton).
As the film begins it sets itself up with a very serious tone. The massacre on the beach pulls no punches and the deaths of innocent people who were out to enjoy themselves is as bloody as it is brutal. Immediately though, the film contradicts itself with the amount of blood that hits the screen, which makes the film feel more like an homage to the pulp action films of the 70’s and 80’s. Straight away, American Assassin has left us with a lumpy concoction and no balance between realism or faux blood splatter. After this we see Mitch as he prepares to infiltrate the terrorist cell, now with a beard – the ultimate sign of being a badass – he takes MMA classes and enlists at the local shooting range as he perfects his skills. We see Mitch tracked by the CIA and we see him get his arse merrily kicked by Michael Keaton. It takes itself rather seriously when it commits to the hero in the making origin story. Only, it lets itself down after the first 40 minutes or so and becomes something that’s not so much light-hearted, but rather more like an average episode of 24.
With dialogue so profoundly perfunctory and a story so one dimensional it is down to the actors to do the heavy lifting. Dylan O’Brien, of Teen Wolf and Maze Runner fame, has beefed up for the role and takes to the action scenes with aplomb. His natural magnetism is under-seeded with a nervous charm that hints at a level of insecurity in his character. Michael Keaton is given little to work with here and his ex-Navy Seal is more like a caricature of what you imagine a dedicated former Naval officer to be. All swearing and bullying swagger, Keaton has to work hard to make this character credible. Credit then to the former Batman that he makes sense of a role that others would have struggled with. Keaton really does shine here and he forms a well-earned camaraderie with O’Brien that benefits the film no end.
The action is nicely handled by director Michael Cuesta and the hand to hand combat has a realistic feel to it. There are moments of James Bond silliness at times, Mitch hanging outside a window for example, but overall it’s tight and secure in its confidence. Cuesta handles the multiple story threads in an assuring fashion, but still can’t stop the film from dragging in the middle. There is a definite lull here and things become tiresome. The ending is hit and miss – the finale between Rapp and the films villain is like an ending to a Roger Moore Bond film that was left on the editing floor, while conversely there is a stinger at the end which hints at further adventures which would be welcome. It’s a shame then, that despite its faults, this is probably the last we will see of Mitch Rapp.