The action/thriller genre took a big shot of adrenaline in 2002 when Doug Liman came out with The Bourne Identity. That movie inspired a slew of copycat films, with varying degrees of success. American Assassin, an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name, is another film cut from that same cloth.
When Cold War veteran Stan Hurley takes CIA black ops recruit Mitch Rapp under his wing, they receive an assignment to investigate a wave of random attacks on both military and civilian targets. After discovering a pattern of violence, Hurley and Rapp join forces with a lethal Turkish agent to stop a mysterious operative who wants to start a global war.
Let’s get this right out of the way: no, this is not as good as The Bourne Identity. If you keep your expectations that high you’re going to be disappointed. However, I’d say this turned out quite well for a potential new character driven franchise.
The cast in this film is certainly one of its highlights. I have no idea why Dylan O’Brien continues to be overlooked in Hollywood. Maybe it’s because very few people have bothered to check out The Maze Runner series (writing it off as just another Hunger Games rip off)? While that may be true on the surface, The Maze Runner films have more to offer than you might expect on the surface. In American Assassin, O’Brien definitely proves that he has what it takes to be a leading man, especially when he’s put over by the likes of seasoned veteran Michael Keaton. I know this’ll never happen, but if they were to announce tomorrow that WB/DC was developing a Batman Beyond movie, I would cast Keaton and O’Brien in an instant. That’s how good their chemistry was, especially once they really come through for each other in the third act. American Assassin included other great performances from Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet, Shiva Negar, and Taylor Kitsch.
American Assassin was my first exposure to director Michael Cuesta. He has a decent amount of experience in a handful of different genres both in film and television. He’s perhaps best known for his work on the series Homeland, which perhaps explains his interest in this source material. I haven’t read this book, so I can’t exactly critique this film as an adaptation. But, strictly on its own merits, I can say that Cuesta does a competent job staging a number of thrilling action sequences, especially when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. American Assassin did utilize some shaky cam and jump cut sequences, but they weren’t nearly as distracting as other recent action films poorly imitating Doug Liman’s and Paul Greengrass’s styles.
As a comic book fan, especially of vigilante type heroes like Batman and Green Arrow, I was completely invested in the story that was presented by American Assassin. We’ve seen stories like this before (where the main antagonist that has to be stopped is a rogue member of an organization, or a former partner gone bad) but, for me, this narrative remains effective, and worked well in American Assassin. Maybe it was because of the casting of O’Brien and Kitsch, who share similar facial features that make it believable that these two shared the same teacher. Maybe it was because the action was well staged. This helped get me invested in the final fight between Rapp and Ghost.
However, the structure could have used a little more consistency. While the first half of film is fairly grounded in reality, the tone of the film goes off the rails once the main mission begins. It’s not a complete 180, but things start to become more “pulpy” in terms of execution. This “pulpiness” was particularly noticeable in a third act sequence which invoked a ticking clock as the team tries to save the world from a nuclear bomb. The film also had some very poor CGI, even for a film without a huge budget. You’d think that the producer, who also produces the Transformers franchise, could have hired a better visual effects company for this effort.
Finally, the score composed by Steven Price was awesome. He may not have had as long of a career composing as legends like Hans Zimmer or John Williams, but he’s been involved in the music department of some of the biggest films over the past couple decades. His credits include work on Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Return of the King, Batman Begins, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Suicide Squad, and Baby Driver. He’s not necessarily a “flashy” composer, but he does serve to accent the appropriate scenes effectively, including, notably, the climax and important fight scenes in this film.
American Assassin was released at just the right time. It’s not quite suited for the summer blockbuster season, but it’s good enough as a transitional film as we wait for the imminent storm of Awards season contenders coming in the next few weeks. Dylan O’Brien passes the leading man test with the assistance of Michael Keaton and the rest of the supporting cast. What American Assassin lacks in structural consistency, it certainly made up for it in entertainment value.