Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules, but dammit if he doesn’t get the job done, is recruited by the CIA to assist in taking out some “very bad people who plan on doing some very bad things“…
American Assassin is not the type of film to break convention or shake-up the action genre in any way but, much like the film’s competent lead (here in the form of a lean, angry Dylan O’Brien), it gets the job done.
Having witnessed firsthand the brutal slaying of his fiancé (in a sequence that sets the surprisingly violent tone the film plans to adopt), Mitch Rapp (O’Brien) moulds himself to be the slickest agent the CIA haven’t recruited. Learning Arabic, perfecting the art of MMA, and becoming more than just a crack shot with a rifle, Rapp’s ultimate plan is to hunt the terrorists responsible for his fiancé’s death himself and seek his own justice.
Noticing his skillset and exploiting them to their own benefit, the CIA (under the direction of a standard but sassy Sanaa Lathan) opt to train Rapp in a more controlled manner, sending him to a recruitment retreat of sorts where a no-nonsense drill sergeant (Michael Keaton) intends to make-or-break him.
Keaton, who is so thankfully a staple of American cinema once again (thanks Birdman), is American Assassin‘s wildest ingredient, easily stealing every scene he appears in. In the film’s most compelling sequence he is tortured by a villainous Taylor Kitsch, in a series of gruesome tactics that evoke a decent wince from participating viewers, and to keep the scene from trailing predictability, he infuses his character with an unhinged enthusiasm that only enrages Kitsch further.
It’s probably not the greatest outcome for American Assassin that both its lead and villain aren’t as compelling as its support player, but Keaton ultimately has more to work with than either O’Brien or Kitsch, so it’s more a fault with the screenplay than the actors themselves. O’Brien may not quite have fully mastered the cocky machismo required for the role, but he appears confident and, more importantly, believable as a slick human weapon. Kitsch, who would have been considered for this type of role a few years ago when Hollywood tried to make him a “thing”, isn’t as compelling a villain as the film deserves, but he never appears incapable, which is enough for him to survive the film unscathed.
Given that this film is based on the first of a series of books from Vince Flynn, it’s evident there’s the intent to have Mitch Rapp join the Jason Bournes and Jack Reachers of the cinematic world by aligning a potential franchise. American Assassin will have to shake up the genre a lot more to garner a following, but the foundations laid here prove entertaining enough that a second helping of Rapp would be acceptable; just as long as Keaton comes back too.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
American Assassin is in cinemas now.