Like a blunt-toothed kitty hiding inside the bigger, fiercer coat of a ferocious-looking tiger, the feature adaptation of Vince Flynn’s “American Assassin” is a sneaky, deceitful little one. With an Academy Award Winner in tow, a screenplay crammed of fat words and endless jargon, and some of the best choreographed action since whatever Marvel did last, CBS Films and Lionsgate would like you to believe you’ve settled into watching a gritty, complex political epic – not unlike the source material, actually – when instead you’re watching your typical teen test audience approved popcorn actioner. It’s more meow, than roar; more Lemmon, than Matthau.
Eighteen months after he watched as his fiancée was gunned down in a vicious terrorist attack, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) become a one man vengeance solo act – determined to study and ultimately hunt down the men responsible. When the C.I.A get wind of Rapp’s act, they bring him in – and make him add some backup singers and a lead singer to his troupe.
Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (a scenery-chewing Michael Keaton) takes the black-ops recruit under his wing, ultimately having him work an assignment investigating random attacks on military and civilian targets. What the two ultimately discover is that one of Hurley’s old pupils (Taylor Kitsch) is the one causing mischief.
Seemingly intent on introducing cinematic audiences to Dylan O’Brien – we’ve gotten to know the star of TV’s “Teen Wolf” through “The Maze Runner” movies but this is a much bigger undertaking – than literary hero Mitch Rapp, director Michael Cuesta skips the smarts from Flynn’s books and goes for the slick, swift and predictable time-passer route where boys and blowups take precedence over brains and a brilliant three-act structure.
Not that O’Brien’s first major action vehicle is the cinematic papsmear of, say, Taylor Lautner’s “Abduction” (which tried to stage the then pin-up boy as an action hero) but it’s also not the pleasurable mix of smarts and stunts the similar-themed “Bourne Identity” (it itself based on a best-selling novel featuring a similar character) was. Considering four capable screenwriters were on script duty here (surprised to discover none lived in their momma’s basement and wanked over cheesy ’90s thrillers starring Wings Hauser), one can only assume that it was in fact the intention from the outset to make a movie that played to the teenage fans of O’Brien (and to a lesser extent, “Friday Night Lights” and “Battleship” heartthrob Taylor Kitsch) and together they delivered on the promise. With its cliche spewing set-up, gnawing dialogue (a spoon with every ticket sold!) and a plot that makes sure the audience is always one step ahead of those in the movie, “American Assassin” seems to be largely targeting only those young “Teen Wolf” and “Maze Runner” fans and, to a lesser extent, crowds with a penchant for leave-your-brain-at-the-door, razzle-dazzle action movies. Considering the Mitch Rapp of the 12-novel series was considerably older than O’Brien, aforesaid assumptions seem almost a certainty.
It’s almost ironic that CBS Films produced the film because “American Assassin” might’ve worked better as a TV series (on a network like CBS). Even if they’d stuck with a young lead, a weekly series would’ve given the writers a chance to flesh out the material, slow up proceedings and do away with some of the implausibility that this tightly condensed feature runs into.
Sounds like I hated this thing more than “nail checking” day at Boy Scouts, right?
For what it’s worth, “American Assassin” is an enjoyable action-thriller that – at only 111 minutes – never outstays its welcome. Its greatest strengths lie within its terrific cast, with Keaton – seemingly letting go of some of the bent up frustration he garnered from having to shovel shit for all those years, until “Birdman” came along – relishing the opportunity to play both commanding authority figure and batshit-crazy cannibal in one, and both O’Brien and Kitsch giving their all, as hero and villain, respectively, making the most of their thinly written roles by conveying multiple shades of the emotional rainbow at every opportunity. If anything, they’ve both got some great new material for their demo reels here and proof that they can carry such pics.
In addition, director Cuesta (“Homeland”, “Kill the Messenger”) proves himself the Miss America of action movie sequences, serving up some beautifully choreographed action that won’t do anything to spur world peace but, as for as noisy teenage cinemagoers go, will help keep the peace.
Don’t be fooled, “American Assassin” wants you to believe it’s one thing, when its really another – but ya know, those that prefer the daft blonde with the good looks and quick moves over the intellectual that comes with amazing conversation and surprise gifts will unquestionably enjoy their time.