There’s something wonderfully basic about American Assassin. I don’t know if “basic” is the right word; “stripped-down” fits a little better. Maybe it’s the no-nonsense, no-frills feel; maybe it’s the undisciplined, scrappy hero; or maybe it’s the spareness of the script, denying its audience the idiocy of a typical summer blockbuster action picture. Perhaps it’s all of the above. Regardless, it’s a little surprise out of nowhere popping up on the post-summer radar.
It’s not a Michael Bay-type film with big blowouts and hammy one-liners. American Assassin is a lean film which enjoys getting to the point as much as its lead character Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) does. After a terrorist attack leaves him mourning the woman he proposed to only minutes before, Rapp dedicates his life to ending terrorism one cell at a time, no matter who gets in the way. Orders from his superiors be damned; he’s out for blood on his own terms.
The film isn’t out to redefine action cinema or to establish the next Jason Bourne, as O’Brien doesn’t cut enough of a figure. Instead, he is the means to an end, the gun and the chambered round. You put him in a situation, he’s going to get the job done, even if it means blowing his and his team’s cover. Screenwriters Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz scribe him as someone willing to go the distance, fearlessly jumping into the fray and not happy unless the villains are dead. O’Brien matches well to this directive and gives Rapp the conscience which makes the difference between a human with a weapon and a mere stone-cold killer.
Attempting to tame his laser focus are CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) and Black Ops guru Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Kennedy, recognizing the potential Rapp possesses, sends him to Hurley to break him of bad habits and instill new ones germane to one task: assassination. After all, Rapp fits the psychological profile (a nebulous plot device leaned on so heavily in this film’s recruitment stage) and “tests off the charts”; all Hurley has to do is hone Rapp into the killing machine they need.
The film’s setup rides on clichés like these, and there’s no arguing its been-there-done-thatness. However, Rapp’s issues cloud his judgment and make him vulnerable underneath the savage outer layer he wears. It’s kind of refreshing to see him not give into one sticking point during his training, even if it does cause him punishment and pain; he may be a government killer, but he’s still human, which is what separates American Assassin from standard fare.
But, as films like these go, there’s a poison pill running around buying up weapons-grade uranium. Fingers point to an operative called The Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who may or may not be a skeleton kicking around in Hurley’s closet. Let it be said: this is the first film in which Kitsch didn’t bother me so. He’s kept mostly off-screen, but when he’s in our faces, he exudes a deranged energy which suits him and his character well.
The film’s not entirely cold and without mirth; Keaton’s Hurley provides much of the film’s levity, being a man who’s seen the ugliest of humanity and lived to pass on his knowledge. As much as Rapp is the lead character, our eyes (and ears) are drawn instead to Hurley, whose gallows humor, guts, and passion steal every scene he’s in. Hurley wrangles us (and those in the scene with him) with wild-eyed magnetism, moving efficiently through both his assignments and the people in his path. He’s also written to focus on his objectives, scolding Rapp when he screws up and also (in the same breath) giving him his due when Rapp gleans unexpected assets from a botched job.
The action is mired in the present tensions surrounding our political and global climate (even the term “Fake News” pops up somewhere along the line). American Assassin may be a little too close to home for escapist entertainment; there’s realistic violence and torture, something we see on a daily basis with our lovely 24-hour news cycle. Terrorism is no longer the joke so readily found in ’80s and ’90s films like Back to the Future and True Lies. To its credit, American Assassin treats this film staple with reserve, tact, and respect towards those dealing with this in real life, neither glorifying or insulting the manner in which the intelligence community operates.