When we first meet the young Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) in American Assassin, he is not yet the grizzled, superhuman killing machine he will soon become. Instead, he’s just a goofy 20-something on vacation with his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega). They frolic on the beach in Ibiza, he proposes, and they’re very happy together — until moments later, she’s shot through the chest in a random and brutally violent terror attack. Poor Rapp has to watch his fiancée of five seconds bleed out on the beach, blood speckling her white bikini. The bikini is to show she’s sexy, but the white is to show she’s pure and innocent. Subtlety is not American Assassin’s strong suit.
Sound familiar? American Assassin‘s clichéd and violent opening sets the tone for the rest of the film, a superhero origin story of sorts for the super-skilled Rapp. The character was born from Vince Flynn’s bestselling series of novels, and although Flynn originally introduced his protagonist as a veteran CIA expert, American Assassin is based on one of Flynn’s later books, which traces exactly how Rapp went from baby-faced lovebird to highly-trained agent. Director Michael Cuesta’s big-screen adaptation follows Rapp in the months after Katrina’s death, as he learns Arabic, brushes up on his martial arts skills, and grows a big, bushy beard. When he finally tracks down some of the terrorists involved in the Ibiza attack, Rapp’s extracurricular activities catch the attention of the U.S. government. CIA handler Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) decides that instead of sending him to therapy to deal with his deeply rooted traumas, she’s going to hire him!
And she introduces Rapp to his new mentor: a former Navy SEAL named Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). The gruff, baseball-cap-wearing Hurley runs a secret boot camp in the woods, basically functioning as some sort of highly-trained Murder Dad to all his little baby assassins. It’s his job to teach Rapp and the rest of his Murder Children how to take down some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. In a film filled with clichés and broody seriousness, Keaton is the only one who seems to be having any fun, lending both a gravitas and a wink to a ludicrous plot about terrorists working to acquire and build a nuclear bomb. At one point, he even gets to say the line, “That’s a s— ton of plutonium.”
As Hurley and Rapp race against the terrorists, the plot is too dumb to be taken seriously and too self-serious to be any fun. Unsurprisingly, student and mentor clash, as Rapp is entirely driven by his lust for revenge and Hurley urges him to focus on the job and purge all emotion. Things get personal, however, when the team discovers that one of Hurley’s previous American Murder Children has since gone to the dark side and is putting his particular set of skills to use by working with the aforementioned terrorists on the bomb. He is known as Ghost, and he is played by Taylor Kitsch. A more nuanced movie might explore the idea of an American puppeteering a Middle Eastern terror group, but American Assassin would rather watch Ghost kidnap Hurley and violently take his daddy issues out on him. (One particularly grisly torture scene finds Keaton parting ways with one of his fingernails, to which he grins and replies, “I got nine more!”)
Aside from Keaton, O’Brien is the most engaging part of the entire film, even when the script requires him to spend most of his time silently brooding or punching things. In the rare moments when he’s actually allowed to crack a smile or drop a one-liner, you can see a tiny bit of 007-ish charm shine through. He’s also a blast to watch in the action scenes, especially one standout sequence involving hand-to-hand combat on a speeding boat. American Assassin isn’t exactly original enough to warrant a sequel — but if they end up bringing O’Brien back to adapt another Flynn novel, here’s hoping they let him have a little more fun in the next one. C