American Assassin tries to be both serious and pulpy but ends up tampered by its indifferent view and unhurried cat-and-mouse game.
Ironic tragedy suffuses the life of young Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, Maze Runner). He loses his parents to a traffic accident at an early age, and his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) is killed on the beach of Ibiza after he proposes (and she says yes). As Rapp’s hapless fiancé is amongst countless victims of a mass shooting by Jihadist assailants, he remembers the face of Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed) and vows to avenge. Eighteen months later, faking as a recruit for a terrorist cell by growing a sick beard (from the time O’Brien recovered from his injury) and learning Islamic scripture, Rapp gains access to Al-Mansur. That’s when the US forces break in and steal his joy of revenge.
This is the premise for American Assassin (someone please keep track of these American movies). Adapted from the Vince Flynn line of political thriller novels, this movie follows Rapp with a counterterrorist rhetoric dated before the Homeland era to match its undue ambition of an action franchise wannabe.
My first impression is the art department could have done better with changes on Rapp’s appearance. To O'Brien’s credit, his acting is more mature than his YA-novel role in Maze Runner, and his physical attributes add credibility to snippets of pickpocketing or outsmarting pit bulls. Nevertheless, his disobedient, hasty character can't hold a feeble ground, let alone rising above plot artifices. In the beginning, it almost feels like Rapp is projecting eagerness and heartbreak onto the veneer of a douchebag. That quality alone makes us step back from sympathizing with him.
To kick off the conflict, director Michael Cuesta (Kill The Messenger) inserts a huge chunk of flat exposition about Rapp’s background through procedural dialogue between him and CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). Seeing his special traits, she asks Rapp to join a black-ops squad to carry out secret missions, but not before he receives proper training from a wise master.
Meet former US Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), the cranky mentor of CIA’s Orion. He intimidates and fools with Rapp through customary action-flick bits of training where he pretends like it's real. Or that time with projections of Al-Mansur created in a VR training session. What irks viewers is this type of supporting character doesn't provide tension or improvement on the lead's arc. That Keaton doesn't look game for intense violence is one thing, but Hurley is just a caricature of the profane, boorish old-timer we see too many a time. The poised veteran doesn't have his chance to shine until the third act when Keaton’s madcap reactions against the main antagonist toughen the suspense.
Anyway, Rapp grows to be the outstanding apprentice amongst peers with sharp observation and his ballsy act of grabbing on a knife's blade. But inconsistencies emerge in motives: Kennedy recruits Rapp because the political matter is personal to him—hence his commitment and high focus—but Hurley always preaches that it shouldn't be. Throughout Rapp’s arc, this argument never reaches to any proper discussion. Vengeance proves to be destructive on him, but his character arc solves itself with a feeling of quick but weak self-assurance. Screen presence is overstated, but the substance we need from characters is missing.
Plot artifices leave many loose ends to maintain clarity for the audience as the formulaic plot stomps a familiar ground. Thus Lathan suffers from her scattered appearance in between negotiating with two Iranian officials who show adversary against America and supervising Rapp and Hurley’s devil-may-care abandon. All those pieces mingle into a predictable mission in this standard plotline. Rapp’s team must track down a large amount of plutonium stolen from the Russians, by an enigmatic mercenary (Taylor Kitsch) known as Ghost, and pursue a nuclear warhead under the pressure of political arrangements. But why must Hurley’s team operate under limited resources? Shouldn’t Orion fill the missing spots of casualties?
When Hurley glares at Ghost on the security video, we all know the next hour is trying its best to imitate Skyfall. As Ghost, Kitsch—remembered along with box office bombs—makes for a ruthless, decisive villain. People like him are the victims of next-gen military organizations, which shrug off one of their agents every Thursday, as in the Bourne films. And that’s all his character is. Hurley insists on holding his secret about Ghost, and Rapp keeps questioning him for that. Yet the identity of Ghost never adds substance to the plot progress. His background reveals none of his quirks, habits, or weaknesses.
All Cuesta does is laboriously set up characters then hold them captive in unmotivated action scenes. As a result, editor Conrad Buff IV cuts around the obscure filming of fight scenes, well-choreographed by Marcus Shakesheff. Together with repetitive set pieces and unremarkable cinematography are gratuitous killings of innocent people—to match the R-rated promise. And who would waste Scott Adkins like this before the skillful stuntman could throw a real kick?
Even as Ghost is closing in on his deal and the grander scheme ventures further and further into political vengeance, Cuesta’s generic direction forgets to highlight the stake of a new nuclear bomb. With an outdated idea about the war on terrorism, American Assassin tries to be both serious and pulpy but ends up tampered by its indifferent view and unhurried cat-and-mouse game.
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