Hot Take: An attempted launch of a new franchise, the first “Mitch Rapp” novel-to-cinema conversion feels like a dud… a very violent, uneven been-there-done-that spy thriller. Are the books this generic?
The hope for American Assassin was probably the second coming of Jason Bourne… which was basically the second coming of James Bond… which has re-invented itself multiple times thanks to a change in the lead role. Hope is not a strategy though and, unfortunately, American Assassin‘s strategy to launch a franchise behind the Mitch Rapp character who is featured in 15 novels by Vince Flynn looked to stay inside the lines when it comes to spy thrillers with the only risk being to turn up the violence a notch or two. The result is a very disappointing initial film which fails to deliver on the promise of a best-selling novel series and is in the possession of one of the biggest plot holes I’ve seen in recent cinema history. (Maybe the novel has the same plot hole? That would be disappointing to find out.)
Starring Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp, American Assassin has a lead actor who has already proven at a very young age to be able to draw at the box office in the same role as O’Brien is also the star of The Maze Runner series which has 2 successful films under its belt. Michael Keaton is also in the film in a supporting role and very few actors are on a more successful trajectory than him over the past couple of years. Keaton plays Rapp’s mentor into the world of Special Forces in the role of Stan Hurley, leader of a Black Ops unit codenamed Orion. This is Keaton’s second consecutive supporting role in an action flick after three consecutive critically acclaimed performances (Birdman, Spotlight and The Founder). Unfortunately, this is a step backward for him and while he’s okay in the role, it’s not one that showcases his best talents.
The story is simple. Rapp is on vacation with his girlfriend on a beach in Spain where he proposes to her. Immediately following the moment she says “Yes!”, an Islamic Jihadist cell shows up on the beach and commences with a terrorist attack. The ultra-violent shoot-out is tough to watch as the vacationers are gunned down including Rapp’s fiancee and even Rapp who takes a few bullets in the melee. Flash forward to 18 months later and Rapp is heavily engaged with the terrorist cell via the Internet, taking out his frustrations at a gun range and in MMA classes and planning revenge. He’s also under investigation from the U.S. government, unbeknownst to him. He infiltrates the terrorist group and gets a one-on-one meeting with the leader of the group when a U.S. Special Forces team bursts onto the scene and takes out the terrorist leader and the rest of the group. Rapp is taken into custody and grilled for 30 days by the U.S. group. Eventually, they offer him the opportunity to join the Black Ops group headed by Hurley known as Orion because who needs training when you are filled with such rage that it drives you to become an unstoppable killer, right?
Sounds generic, doesn’t it? American Assassin is filled with generic moments. Lacking originality, American Assassin plods along with O’Brien’s Rapp and Keaton’s Hurley having a contentious relationship. ***MINOR SPOILER ALERT COMING*** The villain in the film, known as “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), is a former pupil of Hurley’s which is the reasoning for Hurley’s distancing himself from Rapp. “Ghost” is always one step ahead of Hurley’s Orion team because why wouldn’t he, right? This makes it impossible for Hurley’s team to get the jump on “Ghost” but, eventually, once Rapp disobeys orders for what seems like the umpteenth time, the inevitable showdown between “Ghost” and Rapp takes place.
Along the way, one area where American Assassin never pulls punches is in the violence department. For some reason, this film contains more realistic violence than I’ve seen in a while. The opening scene contains a rather gruesome gun massacre on the beach and that just sets the tone for the rest of the violence throughout the film. It seems like there’s blood everywhere throughout the film and it goes out of its way to make sure blood splatters hit the camera lens for as much realism as possible. However, it feels less realistic and more gratuitous.
Watching American Assassin, you see the potential in the Rapp character. It’ll be interesting to see if one of the many other novels featuring the character makes it to the big screen as the film struggles to make waves at the box office. O’Brien is young enough to headline a franchise for a while but his turn as Rapp might not resonate enough to warrant him staying in the role. The good news for the potential franchise is that the novels span many years and the character has previously drawn interest from a few stars with more cache than O’Brien so there’s always that option when talking about continuing the franchise. However, on merit alone, American Assassin doesn’t need a follow up and, outside of the amped up violence, there’s not a lot of memorable moments in American Assassin to make a lasting impact.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- It Checks All of the Action/Thriller Boxes
As it remains generic, the one thing American Assassin has going for it is it should resonate with fans of these types of films. If anything, it might lack some action but the film plays all of the old standards — shoot outs, car chases, hand-to-hand combat, a third act race against time — and plays them in a workman-like fashion. It allows American Assassin to be the lounge singer of action flicks.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Does Keaton Overshadow O’Brien?
Keaton’s Hurley might be a more interesting or at least as interesting character as Rapp which is never good for a potential action franchise. Keaton’s over-the-top approach to the role gives the film some cartoonish moments but also supplies the most memorable ones. Unfortunately, Keaton’s character isn’t the star which leaves O’Brien occasionally feeling like a supporting character in his own movie.
- That Plot Hole ***SPOILER ALERT***
It’s impossible to discuss American Assassin without touching on one of the most egregious plot holes in some time. As Rapp is on the trail of “Ghost”, he gets a partner in Annika (Shiva Negar) who ends up being a foreign intelligence agent. We learn Annika is driven much in the same way as Rapp as her family was killed by terrorists. Later, “Ghost” figures out her identity which leads him to her uncle who is a leader in the foreign intelligence agency she works for. Also, “Ghost” knows everything about Rapp’s background, using the slaughter of his girlfriend to push him during a fight. However, there’s a scene where “Ghost” holds Annika at gun point and she says, “I want to see my family” to Rapp, as a cue to him to shoot “Ghost” and not worry about her life. “Ghost” takes this as Annika begging for her life and not the opposite but for a man that has done such due diligence to be a step ahead in every scene, how does he not know Annika’s family history? Come on!