The purpose of the first act of your garden variety would-be blockbuster is to establish stakes, to make your protagonist’s plight relatable and real to the audience, and the encourage them to invest in the tale being told. American Assassin (read Jacob Knight's review here) tries to accomplish this by dramatizing the backstory of its fresh-faced anti-hero Mitch Rapp, played by The Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien.
In the novels American Assassin is based on, and in the cinematic adaptation, Rapp’s girlfriend is murdered. The film version moves the action from the 1980s to 2017, and instead of killing Rapp’s girlfriend during the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 (a real terrorist event), she’s killed during a mass shooting that takes place immediately after Rapp has proposed. It’s staged in the most brutal fashion by director Michael Cuesta, best known for his work on the TV series Homeland. It’s the kind of rug-pulling moment that signals to the audience that the following motion picture is not escapist fare. It will be hard, mean, and occasionally disturbing.
That American Assassin features this harrowing opener, then quickly devolves into generic super-spy fare is not quite disappointing. As Vulture’s Emily Yoshida wisely pointed out, this is a terrible cultural moment for a movie so brazen in its blood-soaked enthusiasm about playing with images that evoke real-world horror, so no need to lament a missed opportunity. What’s really dispiriting is how little I (and like you, dear reader, if you exchange currency for a ticket to this film) cared about teen-dream Mitch Rapp.
American Assassin skips ahead a few years to Rapp operating as a one-man Seal Team Six, wiping out anonymous terrorists with extreme prejudice after impersonating a would-be Western recruit. Rapp’s tragedy might send most people into the emotional inertia of depression, but not our hero. Others might join the military in order to wage sanctioned war against those that harmed them. Not big boy Mitch Rapp. He has to go rogue, because that’s often the most appealing character trait for the predominantly male audience that buys Mitch Rapp books and sees movies like this. They cannot be contained and they will not submit to your rules.
As these movies tend to go, Rapp’s solo vendetta attracts the attention of the CIA, fronted by a counter-terrorism guru played by Sanaa Lathan. She ships the on-the-edge Rapp to a secluded training facility run by surly spy veteran Stan Hurley. Michael Keaton, an actor you maybe thought was done playing these one-note, B-movie parts after a run of awards fare, does the best he can playing a cynical company man, but can’t help but go full “Let’s get nuts” in the film’s climactic act.
Lathan and Keaton attempt to play the literary backstory of their characters (he knew her father, she grew up idolizing him, now she’s the boss), but the tone is so relentlessly grim that none of it registers before the next 24-esque exposition dump in front of a bank of computer monitors.
But this movie isn’t about them, anyway. It’s about Dylan O’Brien as Rapp. “I’m not sure he’s ready/He’s more ready than anyone, ever” dialogue from the adult supporting characters emphasizes just how cool he’s supposed to be. Only elite killing machine Mitch Rapp can stop the former CIA operative gone bad antagonist trying to blow up a nuclear bomb played by Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch is the most alive of all the actors in this film, and there’s a universe where he’s playing Rapp, but the days of studios gifting him the keys to a franchise (even a minor one like this) seem to be over. As an actor, he’s better off not being tied down by the burden of making two or three more of these.
Kitsch’s character, a battle scarred turncoat the film only refers to by his spy nickname “Ghost,” is clearly meant to be some kind of dark mirror for Rapp to gaze into. That makes Kitsch’s casting ideal, since he is so often the sullen, intense hero. “Look how twisted you could be if you give in to…whatever.” It’s not totally clear why Ghost wants to blow up a nuke in the middle of the ocean. Something about torture, PTSD, and being mistreated by the CIA. The reveal of this backstory isn’t particularly compelling or shocking. Rapp and Ghost don’t have a clear ideological difference, either. One wants to kill terrorists out of revenge, the other wants to kill American soliders for revenge. This difference of perspective or the moral quagmire doesn’t register, because we know who the hero is: it’s cool guy Mitch Rapp, who the movie persists in telling us is a total badass.
And that brings us back to O’Brien, in a role that appears designed to level him up in Hollywood. He’s fine. I cannot emphasize how perfectly acceptable he is as Mitch Rapp. He is asked to look believable beating the shit out of people, which he does. The physicality and the moroseness of the role are really all he has to provide throughout this entire ordeal. There’s a glimmer of charm to him in that opening scene, before it all goes to hell. It’s like the awkward early domestic scenes from the Taken films, but with an actor far more comfortable portraying someone who’s happy. Once you take Liam Neeson’s family, he becomes significantly more compelling.
Some actors were meant to snarl and sulk, some were meant to smile. There are few who can do both. Harrison Ford immediately comes to mind as a person who can wink at the audience one minute, then gaze directly into his navel the next. He did it in his Jack Ryan films and Air Force One, films that are obvious inspiration for the nascent Mitch Rapp Cinematic Universe, not that I think there will be more of these films. I really don’t.
O’Brien’s massive teenage fanbase won’t be coming out for an R-rated thriller that feels tailor-made for your dad to fall asleep to. Rapp heads will likely be disappointed their hero is played by a heartthrob and not someone with bags under his eyes and a recent hip replacement surgery. Audiences looking for a good time at the movies might not even make it past the mass shooting.