Are you psychologically unhinged? Have you been thrown out of an MMA fighting club and shooting range for being just a wee bit too violently disturbed? Do you consider the CIA to be a bureaucratic killjoy with too many law-abiding rules? If your answers are yes, yes, and yes, then the CIA wants you on their side.
Mitch Rapp (The Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien) is on a beach holiday in Ibiza with his girlfriend (Charlotte Vega) as American Assassin, the first in an optimistic would-be franchise based on a book series by the late Vince Flynn, opens. The pair splash around in the sun and it’s not long before Mitch whips out an engagement ring. Whilst he goes off for drinks, his fiancé is left to play with the ring and dream of the happy future ahead of them; but, then, tragedy strikes as a terrorist attack sees her killed and him forced to watch on helplessly. A harrowing prelude, this moment of massacre is one that rings devastatingly true to events of recent years and breaches a subject that should only be approached with the most sincere delicacy. American Assassin is not that film.
From Michael Cuesta – the director of better films – American Assassin is, at best, a serviceable Bourne and John Wick-inspired spy escapade that turns up, does its job and ends. Eighteen months on from the loss of his fiancé, Rapp has been consumed by a yearning for revenge and a burning range of discontent. Yes, he’s grown a beard.
Having apparently Googled ‘local terrorist operations’, Rapp has turned vigilante and tracked down the man responsible for the beach incident via an online jihadi message board. Off he jets to Tripoli, with murder very much on his mind, and infiltrates the terrorist cell; which is when the CIA reveal they’ve been watching him, ambush the cell and bring him in for questioning and, later, training. That Rapp is quite clearly deeply troubled (U.S. Special Forces have to drag him away from repeatedly stabbing the corpse of his intended victim) doesn’t go unnoticed by the CIA but Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) isn’t all that concerned: ‘I like your agenda Mitch’.
It doesn’t take an intelligence operative to realise that all of this is absurd. Of course it is. The problem is that American Assassin is nowhere near fun enough to be enjoyable fluff and is even further still from being remotely sensitive enough to be able to tackle the issues it’s attacking. O’Brien hasn’t quite the charisma yet of Damon or Reeves, but is given so little to work with in terms of character here that he’s just left to plod between action sequences, acting for all the world like a cocky teenager with angst issues. ’I don’t think that’s extreme at all,’ he tells a psychologist of his urge for terrorist homicide, ‘I think people like that deserve to die in the worst place you can imagine’. It doesn’t help that, in a bizarre bid for the YA market, the film seems to proffer its protagonist as almost Harry Potter-wannabe ‘chosen one’ who can get away with any old rule-breaking because of his inherent magical qualities that America so needs right now.
Supporting O’Brien, you’ll soon forget that Lathan and a wasted David Suchet were ever in the film, whilst Michael Keaton has so many risible lines to spew that he seems to enter the realms of transcendent parody. Of his many ludicrous quotes, the killer is probably: ‘The enemy dresses like a dear and kills like a lion and that’s what we gotta do’.
It’s that, or his brilliantly astute second-half plot synopsis: ‘Some bad people doing some bad things and it’s our job to stop them’. That’s got to be an in-joke, right?