Counter-terrorism agent Mitch Rapp, the creation of the late novelist Vince Flynn, makes his cinematic debut in this Bourne-esque action film clearly intended to kick-start a prolific franchise. Unfortunately, the generic title proves a reliable indicator of the film’s underwhelming content.
Attempts to bring the CIA maverick to the screen have resulted in a revolving-door of directors, as well as writers and stars. The task has eventually fallen to Michael Cuesta, a man with form in the field; he directed eight episodes of the similarly themed TV series Homeland, alongside 2014’s CIA drama Kill the Messenger.
While American Assassin is the 11th book in Flynn’s series, it’s a prequel, so the story serves as a suitable introduction to Rapp’s character and affords the filmmakers the opportunity to cast a young star in a political thriller sphere that’s full to bursting with past-their-prime action heroes.
That star is The Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien, playing a 25-year-old Rapp, who suffers a devastating loss in a chilling and explosively violent prologue which sees Islamic terrorists attack an idyllic resort, gunning down tourists at will.
That the film has been through several iterations is apparent from its four credited screenwriters (including Edward Zwick, who was attached as director at one point); concerns that the repeated rewrites will have smoothed any interesting edges are quickly realised as it trots out cliché after cliché, particularly when establishing Rapp as a heartbroken loner who doesn’t play by the rules.
Rapp’s attempt to infiltrate the cell of the man responsible for the death of his fiancée is foiled by those looking to recruit him. During his subsequent CIA testing, Deputy Director Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) insists that Rapp “might be the best we’ve ever seen”. “But he’s oppositional,” counters David Suchet’s Director Stansfield.
Later, when Kennedy relays Rapp’s through-the-roof results to his ex-Navy SEAL handler Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), he’s unimpressed. “I’ve seen off-the-charts before,” Hurley grumbles. Well, indeed. Haven’t we all?
It’s no spoiler to say that the film’s chief antagonist is “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), an ex protégé of Hurley’s looking to assemble and sell a nuclear bomb. If Rapp and Ghost are two sides of the same coin, this is never really explored, with their character development superficial at best; that these damaged young men are turned by their country into killing machines is addressed, but any such commentary is cursory and comes from the mouth of its villain, neutering it significantly.
Both O’Brien and Kitsch perform with conviction but neither are able to rise above the pedestrian material. In fact, O’Brien is better served by his YA franchise – showing the lack of substance in this explicitly adult offering (it’s plenty violent in a brash, Taken sort of way, just not especially smart).
Keaton, still riding high on his career renaissance, fares much better. Characteristically wild-eyed and with a wiry physicality, he proves he has what it takes to do “geri-action” and is occasionally let off the leash emotionally – a scene where he critiques his own torture with demented relish is a horrible highlight.
Cuesta does a competent job at the helm, delivering the occasional bravura flourish, but any punch and polish he brings to the table is undermined by the myriad failings of the script. Although emphatically a fictitious offering, American Assassin deals with real-world hostilities in a way that prioritises action heroics above all else.
The predominant refusal to engage with the issues at play, both political and philosophical – unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty or A Most Wanted Man – is desperately disappointing. That its protagonist is an uncommunicative hothead whose thirst for vengeance leaves him blind to the bigger picture speaks volumes about the film’s attitude and, of course, its shortcomings.
American Assassin opens in cinemas on Thursday 14th September.