American Assassin is a CIA thriller that desperately wants to be a Bourne Identity clone but fails to achieve the masterful level of suspense and thrills. Except for the amnesia-ridden Matt Damon, all the elements of a Bourne movie are present: international espionage, hand-to-hand combat, expert marksmanship, and occasional car chases through slim, crowded European streets.
It has all the necessary elements for a memorable spy thriller but American Assassin just doesn’t come together to anything meaningful. Part of this is owed to the unfocused direction by Michael Cuesta, who zooms in too closely in conversational scenes and can’t keep action and fights centered when shit hits the fan. Another part is owed to the dialogue, while being efficient, is uninspired.
But the main thing that holds back American Assassin from reaching Bourne level quality is the fact that nearly every character in the film is boring. Mitch Rapp (played by Dylan O’Brien) is inspired to take down terrorists after he watched as his fiance was gruesomely murdered by a terrorist group. It’s his Rosebud, his driving passion that ultimately brings him to veteran CIA official Stan Hurley who takes the fractured lone wolf in under his wing. The problem though is that the entire sequence of Rapp’s fiance getting murdered happens so quickly we don’t really have the proper time to connect to her character or to truly experience his loss.
It also doesn’t help that Rapp is in constant “rebel without a cause” mode, playing by his own rules and not listening to orders. This type of character is usually welcome in action flicks or spy thrillers, but it doesn’t quite make sense considering how Keaton’s character is such a stern, no-nonsense type who actually lost a prized recruit to similar disobedience. The fact that Rapp isn’t told by his superiors to pack up and go him, or that he was even inducted into the CIA in the first place, seems a bit wonky by this movie’s logic.
If there is one saving grace of American Assassin, it’s Michael Keaton. Every scene with him is interesting and invigorating. The most enjoyable period in the film is when the recruits are training at Keaton’s compound in the wilderness, where Keaton employs his superior strength, stamina and wit to whip the recruits into shape. If you’ve ever played a “Metal Gear Solid” video game, this sequence will hearken back fond memories of the VR missions. But Keaton is the glue that holds everything together when terrorist attacks or boring characters threaten to derail the plot.
American Assassin honestly should have made Keaton’s character the primary protagonist and Rapp a recruit that he takes under his wing. But the way it exists righth now, it isn’t phenomenal and it isn’t entirely terrible, its just plain and lackluster, only worthy of a discount matinee fare.