14th Sep2017

‘American Assassin’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Sanaa Lathan | Written by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz | Directed by Michael Cuesta

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Based on the novel by the late Vince Flynn, and vainly hoping to bridge the gap between the spy thriller and the cold assassin sub-genres, Michael Cuesta’s film has none of the style, substance or fun of its more illustrious peers. It’s closer in quality to a modern-day Steven Seagal effort movie than a Bourne, a Bond or a Hunt.

After a strong opening, reminiscent of No Escape’s shattering holiday resort assault, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is left with no living parents and a dead fiancée. Angry as hell, he throws his physical energy into mixed martial arts and gun ranges, and his mental energy into hunting down the terrorist cell responsible for the murder of his muse. Mitch is being watched by the CIA. They are putting together Project Orion: an elite programme which needs to be accelerated as the Iranians have gotten hold of a bunch of plutonium. Except the baddest bad guy is an American, “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), who is posing as an arms dealer in order to build the bomb for himself.

Ghost was trained by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a gruff ex-Navy Seal who just happens to be heading up Orion. It’s like the Blackbriar thing from Bourne, but mixed with the Scouts. Hurley is in the middle of training his assassins when the CIA gives the order for the programme to go live. The chase sees the group travel across the world – Iran, England, Turkey, Italy, Dubai – in order to track down the elusive Ghost and stop him from carrying out his vengeful plan.

You may remember O’Brien as the boring lead from the Maze Runner series, and here he manages to transpose that stolid demeanour into the mid-budget action movie realm. At least we get to enjoy the continued resurgence of Michael Keaton, who does some great brooding and growling in the main supporting role. David Suchet also puts in a wry performance as the CIA head honcho.

Then there’s poor Taylor Kitsch, an okay actor who’s still waiting for his killer role. Well, he is a killer here, but his part seems to exist purely as a way of avoiding racial stereotyping. Even though he’s a verbose villain, I’m still not sure I understand his motivation.

For all the efforts of the cast, the character backstories are delivered with all the grace and subtlety of an intelligence profile. American Assassin‘s script is a joyless procession of tired clichés, whether it’s the training montage, with its “don’t let things get personal” mantra, or the sole female character (doomed, of course) getting the opportunity to dab at the buff guy’s wounds.

American Assassin gets dumber as it grinds on, with the contrivances and nonsensical decisions building up. While the sight of older people telling the youngsters to shut up and listen never gets dull, Mitch takes no notice anyway. He’s an outrageously reckless character, vindicated time and again by no more than action movie logic. There’s an ostensible message about crime not paying and vigilantism not being the answer. Yet Mitch consistently breaks protocol and ignores orders, and is essentially a state-funded vigilante.

Most of the CIA’s investigative work seems dependent on people’s slips of the tongue. “I want to die at sea!” one character mentions, which leads the goodies to exactly the right part of the ocean to save the day. The film has a serious case of Small World Syndrome: the subtitles tell us they’ve just travelled to Rome, but the whole movie might as well take place in a single hotel.

American Assassin is also grimly self-serious and the violence is cruel. As far as brutal, Euro-hopping assassin thrillers go, this has none of the enjoyable cheesiness, humour and energy of Atomic Blonde. Remember that virtuoso scene where Charlize Theron is fighting her way down the staircase, becoming more tired and bloodied as she goes? Forget about it – the action scenes here are dull, and hacked to death with unintelligible editing.

American Assassin is Netflix “view later” fodder elevated by a bit of cash and some recognisable names. Even within those limitations, it tests the patience. Its epilogue will leave a nasty taste in the mouth – and then the movie will swiftly evaporate from memory. That is, until the sequel premieres on DVD with a completely different cast.

American Assassin is out in cinemas from today.

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