Directed by: Michael Cuesta
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Charlotte Vega, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan
Rated: R (strong violence throughout, some torture, language and brief nudity)
There’s something uniquely disappointing about a movie that checks off all the tick-boxes for a decent action-thriller-type film but just doesn’t pull it all together. “American Assassin” is a film in this category. Worse, it doesn’t have enough self-awareness to make it campy and fun. This movie and its characters takes the whole thing very, very seriously. The sole exception is Michael Keaton, but he’s not enough to save this movie.
Our protagonist, Mitch (Dylan O’Brien), loses his girlfriend in a terrorist attack and becomes obsessed with infiltrating and executing terrorist cells. The CIA saves him during a mission, then recruits him into a small program where people like him get trained to do that kind of thing professionally. The program is run by Stan Hurley (Keaton), who has seen Mitch’s type before and is skeptical that he’ll make a good field agent. The rest of the plot focuses on a mysterious group trying to get hold of the ingredients to make a nuclear bomb and our protagonists’ attempts to stop it.
The characters are all straight out of the action movie catalog, cardboard cutouts with no depth or complexity. Our hero doesn’t manage to be likeable, let alone someone we can really cheer for. The movie can’t even decide if he’s good at what he’s doing or not. His training apparently consists entirely of him getting defeated and berated by Stan, who declares him unreliable and untrustworthy, and then takes him out into the field anyway. Stan is painted by the film as someone who is good at what he does and knows what he’s doing, but he utterly fails to change Mitch in any way, condemns Mitch’s actions, and then seems okay with Mitch’s complete failure to respect his training or his orders.
A good villain can help make a movie with otherwise uninteresting characters enjoyable, but “American Assassin” doesn’t even get that right. The real villain doesn’t show up until about two-thirds of the way through the film, and while his scenes involve ranting and torturing one of our main characters, he fails to make an impression. It probably doesn’t help that both he and Dylan O’Brien are cut from exactly the same action movie mold, to the point that they are almost indistinguishable from a distance.
The special effects are very uneven. A lot of thought and effort went into the torture scene and a sequence of car-related mayhem, but there’s also a wide shot involving a helicopter that is so obviously fake as to make the audience literally laugh out loud.
“American Assassin” feels like someone broke down a bunch of action thriller movies into scene summaries, then grabbed a bunch at random and strung them together into a film without changing much other than the character names. Plot point events are mentioned but then never happen or are never referred to again. Character development scenes show up, but the characters don’t actually change.
If you really, really want to see a new iteration of Michael Keaton doing his thing (including chewing scenery and co-stars as only he can), “American Assassin” might be worth seeing. Otherwise, you’re better off seeing one of the films “American Assassin” wants to be.