Director : Michael Cuesta
Cast : Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Navid Negahban, Scott Adkins
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 18 October 2017
Rating : NC16
The best-selling Mitch Rapp spy thriller series of novels by the late Vince Flynn has had a long journey to cinemas. Rapp makes the leap from page to screen as played by Dylan O’Brien. After a personal tragedy leaves Rapp scarred and relentlessly seeking revenge against a terrorist cell, he is noticed by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). Kennedy places Rapp under the tutelage of Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a tough operative active during the Cold War who puts Rapp through his paces. Rapp succeeds, becoming an agent of the top-secret black-ops unit Orion. Alongside Turkish-based American agent Annika (Shiva Negar), Rapp and Hurley must foil an impending attack when 15 kg of weapons-grade plutonium is stolen from a decommissioned Russian nuclear facility. They face off against “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), a rogue former Navy SEAL and Orion operative with a grudge against his mentor, who just happens to be Stan Hurley.
Consent to Kill, the sixth book in the Mitch Rapp series, was originally meant to be the first to be adapted to film. Gerard Butler, Colin Farrell, Matthew Fox and Chris Hemsworth were rumoured to be in contention for the role. American Assassin was chosen to be adapted instead – it’s the tenth book in the series, but is a prequel, and details how Rapp became a spy.
With various book-to-film spy movie franchises out there, including the Jason Bourne, James Bond and Jack Ryan series, American Assassin needs to set itself apart from the pack. Unfortunately, director Michael Cuesta does an inadequate job where that’s concerned. The film doesn’t hold back on the violence, and superficially stands out from its less explicit PG-13 cousins in this genre. However, the character motivations and dynamics at play will be abundantly familiar to anyone who’s seen a couple of spy thrillers. Especially because this film is meant to kick off a series, it’s to its detriment that American Assassin is so unmemorable.
There’s a fair amount of globe-trotting, with scenes set in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Italy. While some moments are visceral enough thanks to the brutality on display, American Assassin never generates sufficient excitement. The climactic sequence is unexpectedly spectacular but also ridiculous, a visual effects-heavy set piece that feels out of place in what is meant to be a grimy, bloody thriller.
O’Brien, star of the Maze Runner series, dials down the boyish charm and turns up the intensity to play a determined, reckless and ruthless young spy. He’s bulked up for the role and looks to be taking things very seriously, but O’Brien can’t help but come off as a little boring at times, when Rapp is meant to be unpredictable and dangerous.
Keaton is in the stage of his career where he’s playing mentor roles, and this is one that he could have easily phoned in. Instead, he delivers an energetic, hard-edged performance. However, even an actor of Keaton’s calibre would have a tough time making lines like “the enemy dresses like a deer and kills like a lion, which is what we’ve got to do” work. The fraught relationship between mentor and mentee has the makings of something electric, but does not develop in a meaningful way.
As the primary antagonist, Kitsch has a difficult time being scary. The villain being a former student of the mentor figure who has since gone rogue is about a cliché a route to go as it gets. O’Brien looks a little like Kitsch, which seems like an intentional way of highlighting that this is how Rapp could wind up if Hurley isn’t careful. Beyond that, the casting doesn’t quite work.
American Assassin lacks the nuance to be taken seriously, but is also too dour to be enjoyed as over-the-top fun. This is a film that wants to be topical – after all, Michael Cuesta directed four episodes of the political thriller TV show Homeland – but American Assassin is more preoccupied with rehashing spy movie tropes than real-world geopolitics.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars