“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.”
That’s a quote from Neal Stephenson’s excellent science fiction novel, Snow Crash, and it’s the thesis – one of them, at least – of American Assassin, the new techno-thriller from director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger), based on the series of novels by the late Vince Flynn.
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is the subject of that thesis, a normal American dude who dedicates his life to wiping out terrorism after his fiancee is murdered in front of him during an attack on a Spanish beachside resort, mere minutes after he proposed to her. Our man Rapp spends 18 months turning himself into an Arabic-speaking, intel-gathering, killing machine, and is all set to pull the trigger on the evil mastermind of his woes when he’s snatched up by Sanaa Lathan’s shady CIA Deputy Director and folded into a black ops program which will hopefully channel his aggression in more politically desirable directions.
In practice that means we get a training sequence under the steely tutelage of Michael Keaton’s Navy SEAL instructor, which is pretty enjoyable because Old Michael Keaton is great. Then the plot kicks in, and we’re on an international hunt for a quantity of missing weapons grade plutonium, swiped by a ruthless mercenary known as the Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, giving the best performance in this thing). He’s American, he knows their tactics better than they do… could he be Mitch’s Dark Shadow ™?
If you think that sounds dumb, you’re right, and it’s not even the silliest element of American Assassin, which plays out like an alternate version of the Jason Bourne flicks where the Treadstone assassination program are the good guys. On a plot level, it’s a dumb run ‘n’ gun that treats espionage and tradecraft like an MMA steel cage match, bouncing from fight to chase to fight to predictable revelation to fight.
On a thematic level, it’s worse. The film can’t figure out whether our man Mitch needs to learn how to follow orders for the greater good, or if his willingness to go off the playbook and Do Whatever It Takes is his chief asset – which is weird considering it’s explicitly stated as the reason why The Ghost was not up to scratch (if the penny doesn’t drop about his origins early on, god help you). For all that the film sets up Mitch and Ghost to mirror each other, it’s not narratively or politically sophisticated enough to make the leap to the inherent irony that a clearly radicalised young American man has dedicated his life to hunting radicalised young Muslim men, instead cleaving to the notion that fanatical white people are inherently more palatable than fanatical brown people.
Still, if you can ignore the politics, or even align with them, there’s fun to be had here, albeit of a simple and sadistic nature. American Assassin, like Olympus Has Fallen, revels in showing bodily harm (interestingly, Olympus director Antoine Fuqua was once attached); the film is peppered with closeups of flesh being pierced with bullets, slashed with knives, burnt, and torn – at one point a pair of pliers meets some fingernails and the camera lingers just that little too long for the squeamish. The action is competently, efficiently staged, although there’s nothing on display to make, say, John Wick‘s Stahelski and Leitch worry about their pole position, and the whole thing ends with a big, dangling sequel hook, which is only to be expected – there are, after all, 12 books in the series, with more to come.
If you’re in an undemanding mood and a fan of the genre, American Assassin ticks enough boxes to make it worth a cheap seat. Charitably, it feels like an ’80s action movie throwback, with all the bombast and political naivety that implies. Whether that’s gonna work for you or not is something you already know.