The trailer for American Assassin didn’t fill me with optimism. Aside from showing a condensed yet complete version of the final product, it looked like a poor man’s Bourne and proposed some questionable CGI for what looked to be its grand finale. Despite heavy hitters like Gerard Butler, Colin Farrell and Chris Hemsworth rumoured to play the lead, it was the relatively unknown Dylan O’Brien that was cast as Mitch Rapp, the tragic figure with a thirst for revenge.
The opening scene is as terrifying as it is contemporary, as a group of terrorists shoot up a holiday resort. Amongst the victims are Rapp and his new fiancé but while she is murdered, he survives. Driven by vengeance, he trains himself to be an elite killer, who attracts the interest of the CIA. Assigned to Cold War veteran Stan Hurley’s (Michael Keaton) black ops project, he shows promise and stands out amongst his fellow recruits. He’s soon tested on his first real mission as he does battle with Hurley’s former golden child turned bad, Ghost (Tyler Kitsch).
Right off the bat, director Michael Cuesta justifies the film’s R Rating as beach goers are slaughtered by the terrorists, letting the blood flow with reckless abandon. No punches are pulled in the violence – whether it’s the MMA styled skirmishes or the close combat gunfights. The end result is the same; a crimson soaked landscape that is gratuitous, but not cartoonish. If this is your kind of thing, you’ll lap it up.
American Assassin’s biggest problem may be that it’s a throwback to the 90’s action thrillers that might struggle to connect with today’s audience. There’s little depth to the characters or the plot as both are skimmed over leading us into another fight scene. Which is fine. American Assassin understands its limitations and plays to its strengths with brutal self-awareness.
O’Brien may lack the star power or physical prowess associated with the genre, but he has a charm that is undeniable, even if he seems a little clean cut. He has a worthy villain in Kitsch’s Ghost to go up against, but they both lack any tension or chemistry due to their characters not having any to begin with. Keaton puts in a fine and surprisingly subdued performance, however, we get to see that wonderfully manic side of him during a horrific torture scene that will make you wince.
There is political subtext about how America creates monsters through its military program that gets hammered home in the third act. Still, we don’t dwell on it for long as another fight breaks out and grabs our attention. This is popcorn fodder that doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. The plot is clichéd but easily digestible due to how familiar it is. This isn’t a knock on the screenplay or original source material, instead it should be a credit to all involved that they can deliver an unpretentious action film that’s reined in from being totally OTT.
In these times where everyone looks for meaning in the art form, American Assassin does what it says on the tin and promises nothing more.