The trailers for AMERICAN ASSASSIN had me confused. Here is this mainstream, slick and expensive looking movie, Michael Keaton is in it, they’re advertising it before respectable movies. And then the plot is that a guy’s fiancee is killed in a terrorist attack, so he trains himself into a super-duper-badass warrior and master of covert ops and goes on a personal mission undercover into the terrorist cell to get revenge on the motherfuckers. That sounds exactly like a movie I would watch if it starred Scott Adkins or Jason Statham or The Rock or somebody. But this just stars some guy. Some actor.
Well it’s on video now so I had to find out the deal. Turns out the actor is Dylan O’Brien and additionally it turns out that Dylan O’Brien is the guy that starred in those movies THE MAZE RUNNER that somebody has probly watched at some point. Also it turns out that there is still a serious TV show based on TEEN WOLF and the show has Teen Wolf’s wacky buddy Stiles in it and Dylan O’Brien plays this Stiles. We are learning alot here today in my opinion.
In AMERICAN ASSASSIN (not to be confused with AMERICAN SNIPER, AMERICAN NINJA, AMERICAN SAMURAI, AMERICAN YAKUZA, AMERICAN KICKBOXER, AMERICAN PIMP, AMERICAN ANGELS, AMERICAN GRAFFITI or especially MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI) O’Brien plays Mitch Rapp, a dude who opens the movie proposing to his girlfriend on the beach in Ibiza. Then as soon as he steps off to get drinks a cell of jihadis storm the beach with assault rifles and start mowing people down. I have mixed feelings about the opening because it’s well executed, but it’s so disturbing it feels kind of immoral to put it on a pulp action movie that has no ambition to deal with reality. With mass shootings similar to this so tragically carved into the public imagination right now, I’m not sure I want to see things this true to life in a movie like this. (It didn’t help that the disc has trailers for two Boston Marathon bombing movies in a row!)
But I soldiered on, and such an upsetting event that we can relate to real life admittedly makes us understand Rapp’s drive for vengeance. 18 months later he’s not only an MMA expert but speaks and types Arabic, has infiltrated the terrorist cell responsible and is able to pass a pop quiz on esoteric Islam facts as part of his initiation. The one sucky thing is that the CIA is tracking him and when he’s face to face with the man who murdered his lady suddenly spec ops soldiers burst in and shoot the guy in the head. All Rapp gets to do is scream helplessly while repeatedly stabbing the dead body. Revengus interuptus.
But because he got so far as a private citizen, CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, BLADE‘s mom) wants to recruit him for Orion, an assymetric warfare black ops unit led by ex-SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, ROBOCOP), who doesn’t think this kid can cut it but god damn it he’s gonna prove himself out of fuck-you stubbornness.
So he trains and he goes on a mission but is he ready yet? I don’t think he’s ready yet. They’re after some missing weapons grade nuclear shit sought by Iranian hardliners who (like Trump) don’t like the government’s nuclear deal with the U.S. But the team find themselves squaring off with an American, sort of a Rapp doppelganger named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, BATTLESHIP). You’re not gonna believe this but Hurley trained this guy too and he was the best there was but then he started to think what his country was doing was wrong so he went rogue and they thought he was dead but it turns out he’s alive and he works for the highest bidder but strike that, actually he’s just using them to get a nuclear weapon and then he’s gonna use it against the Navy.
Keaton is a highlight. It’s funny that before June 23, 1989 everybody thought he was too funny and skinny to be Batman, and now at the age of 66 he can play a grizzled SEAL without even the aid of rubber muscles and nobody bats an eye. I guess because now we believe more in the idea of the secret fighting techniques that elite military guys know that can take somebody to the ground in a couple moves.
It’s a pretty well put together movie, and I was with it for a while, but at a certain point it starts to be an issue that there’s not one god damn scene or concept or line of dialogue that isn’t standard issue, straight from the factory generic. When you combine that with too professional of a production to have any weird quirks, and a serious son-of-Tom-Clancy tone that seems to be saying “we did so much research you guys and this is the real deal, this is how it actually goes down” makes it almost a little offensive. It leans a little over the line into propaganda territory, I think.
O’Brien does fine, but he’s not really action-star cool, and definitely not enough to get away with being as much of a dickhole as he is here. There’s a guy named Victor on Orion Squad who spars with Rapp on his first day, and clearly doesn’t like him. And we might be supposed to think “that guy’s just jealous because Rapp is so awesome” and enjoy that Rapp annoys him. But people like us, we watch it and we see that Victor is Scott Adkins. And I understand that he just wanted to get to act with Michael Keaton even though he wasn’t gonna get to fight very much, and that they gotta make him lose a fight to this kid just like Bruce Lee did to James Garner in MARLOWE. But still, treat Scott Adkins as you would want Scott Adkins to treat you. Don’t do cheap shots and really try to hurt him while sparring. That might impress Hurley but it still makes you a fucking asshole. (This complaint would be moot if they got a chance to bond and gain each other’s respect and turn it into a great partnership, but…)
In an exercise where they have to figure out who is an assassin and shoot them with paintballs, Rapp unnecessarily unloads the whole gun into the poor woman, causing her to scream “You asshole!” more than once, and he shows absolutely zero signs of even the most minor remorse about it. Then as soon as they go on a real mission he walks away, does something really brazen, Disobeys A Direct Order (DADO), could’ve gotten everybody killed, all that shit. Immediately.
Oh shit, and he gets kicked out of the MMA gym. And he almost causes a tragedy at the gun range! He goes to a gun range and uses some ridiculous cannon that blows the shit out of his target, then everybody else’s targets, and he steps out into the line of fire like a fuckin maniac and everybody correctly freaks out. This is not cool LETHAL WEAPON crazy, this is I’m telling you this guy is a serious danger to society crazy.
Oh – did you want to see him beat up a woman? Out of the blue he attacks his colleague Annika (Shiva Negar) and yells that she’s an Iranian spy. He turns out to be correct. Somewhat. But they still work together! She’s an ally, but he slammed her against a wall and dunked her in a bath tub. I didn’t catch how he knew she was a spy, but maybe because she was willing to work with him? That did seem suspicious.
We understand that Rapp has been through alot. We have sympathy. But nobody likes this guy. Nobody wants to work with him. He sucks. And he never learns any better. ‘Cause “He gets results.” Like Harvey Weinstein did.
Quiz: Which of the following is an actual line of dialogue from AMERICAN ASSASSIN?
a) “He’s testing through the roof. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen.”
b) “The enemy dresses like a deer and he kills like a lion and that’s what we gotta do.”
c) “He’s a warrior. One of the best I’ve ever known.”
d) “Out there it’s about the mission, not you.”
e) “Never, ever let it get personal.”
f) “Out there you’re a ghost. You don’t exist!”
Trick question! They’re all actual lines in this movie. And plenty of other movies. And I admit I like lines like that, but you gotta have more than that. You gotta give them a foundation in something that at least seems kinda fresh in some way. Like, if you put those lines in a movie with a crazy gimmick like THE ACCOUNTANT then they seem like a nod to tradition, but in this context they just feel like tired cliches.
The weird thing is for such a boilerplate story it seems like they kinda did it wrong, didn’t they? The new guy should be stubborn and fight against what his mentor and everybody tells him but then he eventually learns his lesson and by combining his innate excellence and/or uniqueness with the wisdom and discipline they’ve taught him he becomes greater. Right? In this version he’s just always going over the line and they’re like “you show potential, but the one thing is you have to stop going over the line!” and then he goes over the line again and again and again and eventually they’re like “you know why you’re so good? Because you go over the line. We need a guy that goes over the line. That is why you are the greatest warrior of all time, Mitch Rapp. You are the man who goes over the line when no one else has the balls. We regular losers stay on the morally, legally and strategically correct side of the line and we can never get anything done because of it! And it now occurs to me that this might sound sarcastic but I assure you I am dead serious Mitch Rapp, I worship you and I hereby grant you a license to kill at will.”
I guess there is one thing that is kinda weird and crazy in the movie, and that’s that (SPOILER) the nuke actually goes off. He kills Ghost but he can’t kill the bomb so all he can do is move the boat a little farther away, drop the bomb in the water and somehow survive the blast in a helicopter. This is obviously lifted from BLACK DAWN, in which Steven Seagal can’t stop a suitcase bomb from going off so he flies in a helicopter and throws it in the water. Evidence: the book it’s based on came out shortly before BLACK DAWN but it did not have a bomb. They added it for the movie, by which time they’d had over a decade to watch and study BLACK DAWN. And I mean, why do you think they cast David Suchet in this? Because he was in EXECUTIVE DECISION.
I’d never heard of it, but there’s a whole series of books about Mitch Rapp, by the author Vince Flynn. American Assassin takes place first, but was the 11th out of 13 books (not including three so far written by another author after Flynn’s death). Wikipedia says of the character, “he is presented as an aggressive operative willing to take measures that are more extreme than might be considered commonly acceptable. His constant frustration with procedures and red tape is a major theme throughout the series.”
Also it says that Flynn was a frequent guest on Fox News and The Glenn Beck Radio Program. Yeah, that sounds about right.
The adapters include Stephen Schiff (TRUE CRIME, The Americans), Michael Finch (PREDATORS, THE NOVEMBER MAN), Ed Zwick (THE LAST SAMURAI, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK, was gonna direct this at one point) & Marshall Herskovitz (THE GREAT WALL). Director Michael Cuesta got his start with the acclaimed drama L.I.E., and he did KILL THE MESSENGER in 2014, but he’s mostly a TV guy now (Homeland, Blue Bloods, True Blood). Vic Armstrong gets a big credit as second unit director, and the action is all a pretty well done version of the standard realistic-ish spy skirmish type. The opening massacre actually might be the standout action scene, unfortunately, with its long takes and effective disorientation, and a part where the camera follows Rapp as he falls into a swimming pool and sees bullets underwater.
I’m not necessarily trying to scare anybody away from this. If you would enjoy a slickly made movie of a book they sell alot of in airports, and don’t mind that it’s completely unoriginal and not very thoughtful or nuanced about the real life shit it takes as its subject matter, this might work for you. There’s room for that kind of movie, but in this case I want better. Either smarter, or with more personality, or both.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.