American Assassin is based on the book of the same title by the late Vince Flynn, and introduces us to Mitch Rapp – a wounded young man who saw his fiancée killed by terrorists and decides to go after them himself.
It could have been a pedestrian thriller by committed performances by Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton and Taylor Kitsch – and a very grounded script (and muscular direction) keep it from descending to that level.
While on vacation in Ibiza, Mitch (Dylan O’Brien, The Maze Runner, Teen Wolf) proposes to his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega). While off to get drinks to celebrate her acceptance, a band of terrorists shoot up the beach. She is killed and he is wounded.
Eighteen months later, we find Mitch working his way into the terrorist cell responsible for Katrina’ death (he’s taught himself Arabic, martial arts and quite a bit about the cell’s beliefs). What he doesn’t know is that a special CIA sub-group has been monitoring him the whole time.
His solo mission to infiltrate and eliminate the cell is on the verge of going wrong when the cell is attacked by American troops and Mitch is extracted.
He has a guardian angel in CIA Assistant Director (and counterterrorism chief) Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, Shots Fired), who wants him to work for them – despite the doubts of her boss, CIA Director Stansfield (David Suchet, Poirot).
He is trained by Stan Hurley – whom Kennedy describes as ‘a warrior.’ Hurley takes Mitch down a few pegs by thumping him soundly, but sees enough in him to keep training him – partly because Kennedy makes the point that his usual operatives smell of boot camp, while Mitch has none of those military indicators.
When intel affirms that almost 16 pounds of fissionable material has been stolen – and a nuclear detonator has turned up in the hands of a weapons dealer, Kennedy puts together a team to recover the material – and Mitch is included on the team along with a female CIA operative named Annika (Shiva Negar (24 Hour Rental, The Art of More).
At every turn, Hurley’s team is thwarted – it’s like the terrorists know exactly how he thinks!
The name Ghost is introduced. Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, The Grand Seduction, True Detective), it turns out, was trained by Hurley and left for dead on an op – and now he’s turned against America, or more accurately, Hurley.
Events build up to two main confrontations – Ghost and Hurley, and Ghost and Mitch.
While there’s nothing particularly original about American Assassin, the grounding of the characters and situations in a slightly enhanced version of the real world helps it avoid falling prey to many of the genre’s clichés.
The Mitch we meet in the opening few minutes is nothing special – he’s another relatively carefree guy with a beautiful fiancée (though maybe a bit better looking than average).
The Mitch we see the rest of the way is a man who has lost his dreams/innocence and has taken great offense at that. He’s intense, focused and dangerous – even before the CIA brings him in.
It’s that intensity, more than anything, that impresses the hard bitten Hurley (though he’d be loath to acknowledge it) – and, perhaps (as things play out), he is also a second chance for Hurley to create the operative he wanted Ghost to be.
O’Brien, who looks more lived in in his own skin, gives Mitch more depth than is on the page by subtle flashes of emotion and vulnerability – and, of course, some carefully placed bursts of rage.
Keaton delivers an Oscar®-worthy performance in the kind of film that guarantees it won’t be recognized. Hurley has all the intensity you could ask for, but there’s a paternal side to him that lurks behind his eyes.
Kitsch, it has to be said, makes a very good antagonist. Like O’Brien and Keaton, there’s a lot going on behind his eyes – and when he does vocalize his feelings of betrayal, we believe him.
The action sequences in American Assassin are mostly short and brutal. Most fights or gunfights really only last a minute or so, and these follow that template most of the time – though in this case, short means brutal.
Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland, Kill the Messenger) does not waste time with extraneous B.S. – he puts the pedal to the metal and keeps it there. America Assassin’s 111 minutes feels far less.
American Assassin is entertaining as Hell. If it does well enough to spawn a sequel, I will not be disappointed.
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