FILM REVIEW – AMERICAN ASSASSIN. With Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet, Taylor Kitsch. Written by Stephen Schiff and Michael Finch and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz. Directed by Michael Cuesta. Rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language, and brief nudity. 111 minutes.
AMERICAN ASSASSIN is one of those action thrillers that, if taken at face value, should be a “check-your-brain-at-the-door” movie. Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) loses the woman he loves in a brutal terrorist attack. Now he lives for only one thing: revenge. He single-handedly tracks down the people responsible, but before he can get his vengeance, the CIA intervenes.
They’re not protecting the terrorists. In fact, Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) is a top intelligence official who wants to recruit Rapp for an elite group within the CIA that answers only to her and to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a veteran “black ops” guy who ruthlessly trains his team. Their new mission: track down 15 kilos of weapons-grade plutonium that they fear may fall into Iranian hands, even though this would violate their agreement to abandon their weapons program. Somehow involved in the transactions is a mysterious figure known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who has some sort of history with Hurley.
And that’s it. Just sit back and enjoy the shootouts, fist fights, torture scenes and explosions. No one will be accused of acting here, but the cast inhabit their cardboard characters that engage you in the same way that you would enjoy a page-turner without taking it seriously. (The movie is, in fact, based on a popular series of books.)
The problem with taking this as a simple action movie is the not-so-subtle political message it wants you to swallow as well. It’s not so much that the villains are, mostly, Iranians and “radical Islamic terrorists” as what the film wants us to accept about America. It’s a world where assassinations are routine and the only bad thing would be getting caught.
The message of the movie is that obedience to authority and protocol is important, except when it’s not. Rapp keeps breaking the rules and disobeying orders, but it’s because he sets a higher goal on accomplishing the mission. Time and again, despite the carnage he leaves in his wake, he’s shown to be right. This is a spy thriller for the Trump Era, where rules that are inconvenient are simply brushed aside.
The fascinating thing about genre movies is how their formulas evolve to reflect the time in which they were made. “American Assassin” very much reflects the attitudes of at least part of the public and government. James Bond, a fictional spy born out of the Cold War, has continued to evolve over fifty years of movies. It remains to be seen if Mitch Rapp will transcend this era.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.