There are more espionage-action heroes than anyone can count, but few ever achieve the level of mainstream exposure of a James Bond or Jason Bourne. American Assassin attempts to launch a cinematic franchise based on the Mitch Rapp novels by the late Vince Flynn, but only succeeds in piling another generic and forgettable film to the action-espionage sub-genre.
The story revolves around Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien), a smart and talented young twenty-something who is enjoying life and love with his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega). That happy time is shattered when Mitch and Katrina are amongst the victims of a brutal terrorist attack while on vacation, leaving Katrina dead and Rapp stuck in a hole of grief and anger that comes to define his life.
Before Rapp can get vengeance, however, his small scheme is swept up into the larger war between US intelligence agencies and foregin terrorists. After seeing the young hothead's skill set as a covert opertative, CIA handler Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) officially recruits Rapp, leaving him in the "care" of covert ops master, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). However, just as Hurley is trying to get Rapp to learn the crucial lesson of not letting the job get personal, a personal piece of Hurley's past comes back to haunt him, in the form of deadly former protege named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch).
Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland, Kill the Messenger) had all the ingredients necessary to cook up a really good spy-action franchise starter - but unfortunately, he drops the ball big time, trying to take on a project of this scale. American Assassin is in large part dragged down by Cuesta's bland and derivative direction, which pretty much rehashes action movie tropes from the testosterone days of the '90s, all the way through the 2000s shaky cam grit of Bourne, and the more recent stylized action of John Wick.
American Assassin often plays like a TV show with a bigger budget thrown behind it, as it never rises above its own B-movie aesthetic to become something worthy of the big screen. There are no standout or memorable moments in the film, and the few times that the action actually ramps up to an exciting level, the visuals conversely drop to a level of amateurish camerawork and bad special effects, with action that's often so jittery and filled with quick-cut edits that it's impossible to follow.
The script by Stephen Schiff (The Americans), Michael Finch (Predators), and writing duo Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai) is equally disappointing. This American Assassin film adaptation is a distinct re-imagining of the Rapp novels and character - but somehow, the writers never seem to find a narrative through-line for the audience's to connect with. The movie opens by giving viewers an introspective (and intriguing) look at Rapp and his massive mental baggage; however, by the time Ghost appears in Act Two, the film settles into a painfully generic and by-the-numbers spy thriller that's full of plot holes and shoddy logic, and ultimately, there's little thematic point or relevance to the story. Worst of all, we don't feel any closer or intimated with Rapp by the time the story ends, making it hard to root for more adventures with the character in the future.
Dylan O'Brien does his part as a convincing leading man. The Maze Runner star delivers more of Rapp's depth and intrigue in his intense, haunted, stares than any of the visual or narrative moments his director and script writers can muster. O'Brien is also adapt at tackling the physical challenges of action and stunt choreography, and looks like a believable and able combatant, despite his thin, wiry, frame.
As good as O'Brien is, he can't stop Michael Keaton from walking away with the film; Keaton is a scene-stealer in every frame, making Stan Hurley and his mentor/student relationship with Rapp the true heart of the movie. Taylor Kitsch doesn't get much performance time (mostly just running and shooting), but he and Keaton have a "reunion scene" late in the film where seem to forget what movie they're actually making, and simply tried to "out Bettlejuice" one another. It's totally out of place compared to the rest of the film - which is to say, totally fantastic.
Aside from the strong lead performances, the rest of the cast and story elements of American Assassin are entirely forgettable or uninteresting. For Rapp fans, this missed opportunity will sting especially hard, as their beloved action hero is likely to be banished to cinematic limbo, alongside so many others like him that viewers forgot about soon after leaving the theater.
Review Score: ⭐️⭐️