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Based on Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series of novels American Assassin is a new attempt at a spy series and starts off using of the most generic spy plots around.
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) was an American grad student turned vigilante after he sees his fiancé gun down by terrorists. After training himself in weapons, martial arts and languages Rapp infiltrates the cell responsible for his fiancé’s death but interrupted by the CIA he is unable to get his closure. Because of his skills the CIA Deputy Director of Counter-Terrorism Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) recruits Rapp for a black ops division headed by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), despite Hurley’s reservations.
Just as Rapp is getting trained weapon’s grade plutonium has been stolen from Russia and a former member of Hurley’s team only known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) plans to make use of the materials to make a nuclear bomb. Rapp, Hurley and the rest of the team are sent to Europe to stop a bomb being made and used against America or her allies.
American Assassin is perhaps one of the most violent action films to be made recently – it has an 18 rating in the UK which is rare now for the genre. Blood splatters and limbs are broken and there is a real sadism behind the action sequences. The film starts with an impressively shot sequence of the terrorist attack, following Mitch as he tries to get to his fiancé as people around them are shot. Yet it is a troubling sequence because it was too similar to the 2015 Sousse Beach Attack where 38 people were killed and another 39 were injured.
Throughout the film there is a lot of violence towards women which gives American Assassin a nasty undercurrent. Whenever there is an action sequence female citizens are shot and a female CIA agent is on the receiving end of a couple of beatings. The point the film is trying to make is that innocent people get hurt and killed but the way it was handled was exploitative. It’s overly violent compared to films like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum where innocent people get hurt or captured – their scenes are fleeting but still impactful. There is a prolonged torture sequence that looks like what the showrunners behind 24 would have loved to have made if they didn’t have network restrictions.
American Assassin‘s main problem is that’s it’s so po-faced. It’s trying to tap into real issues about the rise of Islamic Terrorism and the Iranian Nuclear Treaty yet it is also a so ridiculous at the same time. Edward Zwick was originally set to direct and credited as one of the writers of the screenplay. It was possibly his influence to bring in these real issues because has made action films with a conscience: his previous credits include Glory, Blood Diamond and Defiance.
American Assassin does attempt to have a theme about revenge and how it clouds people’s judgment. The main character wants some sort of vengeance: Rapp wants revenge against the terrorists who killed his finacé and sees all his targets as the terrorist he planned to killed whilst Hurley and Ghost want revenge against each other. Rapp and Ghost are mirrors of each other, driven by their personal mission and Ghost shows what Rapp could become if the young man cannot control his urges.
Despite the contemporary setting American Assassin plot is more like something from the ’90s like The Peacemaker. American Assassin has plot elements involving stolen material from Russia which would have made more sense in the ’90s and has a rogue state planning to take action against the West. Even Ghost’s motivations are similar to the villain’s in The Peacemaker where he seeks revenge against the people that he believed wronged him.
It is hard to believe that a man like Rapp would be recruited by the CIA considering his anger and disobedience, Hurley even points this out. Rapp disobeys orders when in the field yet he isn’t punished and he is even proven right. Rapp is a new agent in the field working within a team, he’s not a Bond or a Bourne who has worked alone for years and has carte blanche to do what they have. This issue of plausibility is made worse because the film it plays its story seriously.
Despite the rating 18 rating American Assassin doesn’t offer the bloody catharsis that audiences would want: it’s grimly depressing. Besides the opening sequence and some moments involving Keaton American Assassin isn’t memorable and follows some of the worst traits of the modern action genre: overly tight cinematography and quick cut editing to hide bad fight choreography. The film’s desire for realism is undercut with its climax that was too ambitious considering the film’s modest $33 million budget.
Despite American Assassin‘s problems the film does have a solid cast and Keaton excelled as the CIA operative. Bruce Willis was originally attached to the role and it is easy to see why – being a gruff military type badass, but considering Willis’ apathy, Keaton was a wiser choice and he deserves to cash in on his career renaissance. He looked the part and actually committed to his role as a hard-ass instructor and the senior man in the field.
American Assassin pales in comparison to films like The Bourne Trilogy and the rebooted James Bond series which have balanced a realistic look and contemporary issues whilst still being entertaining. For a film that is trying to be the beginning of a new franchise it’s a non-starter.