Vince Flynn became a best-selling author with his series of modern spy and political thrillers with his character Mitch Rapp, who emerged as a post-9/11 hero. Flynn wrote 13 novels with Mitch Rapp before his unfortunate passing in 2013. Now Mitch Rapp is geared up to become a big screen hero with American Assassin, the movie based on the origin story of Rapp which Flynn published in 2010. American Assassin is an uneven action thriller, starting out with a bang before losing steam as it becomes a series of underwhelming twists and reveals before culminating in a wildly absurd action finale.
The opening scene of director Michael Cuesta’s film is probably the high water mark of the movie. Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is vacationing on a beachside resort with his girlfriend Emily (Sydney White), whom we watch Mitch propose to through his cell phone video. While getting a celebratory drink, a unit of Muslim terrorists invade the resort with AK-47s blasting indiscriminately at everyone, killing Emily and wounding Mitch. It’s a visceral, shocking, and thrilling sequence that unfolds as numerous shots spliced together to look like one seamless shot.
Over the next 18 months, Mitch devotes himself to vengeance. He trains vigorously with MMA, knives, and firearms. He learns Arabic to infiltrate a terrorist cell. His activities have caught the attention of Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), a higher up at the CIA who thinks Mitch’s determination may be useful. Irene recruits Mitch to a special unit headed by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a grizzled special ops vet who is reluctant to take on the troubled young man. Mitch excels at his training and is put into the field when Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), a former CIA operative, plans to secure a nuclear weapon to sell on the black market. Mitch and Stan will have to team with Annika (Shiva Negar) to unravel the Ghost’s plot and prevent a nuclear strike.
At first, American Assassin starts to wade in some tricky waters with its portrayal of Muslims. That quickly subsides once Ghost is introduced as the film’s key villain, thus ensuring that American Assassin won’t stick with the True Lies-styled depiction of Muslims. The varied machinations of the plot tie into current events, with the Iranian nuclear deal being a lynchpin to part of the nefarious plot. It’s an example of the film trying to act smart about world events and politics while in the employ of a rather simple film of action and vengeance.
In the early going, the story of Mitch Rapp’s training and introduction into the world of the CIA presents some rather compelling cinema. Dylan O’Brien moves well into more adult fare following his run in The Maze Runner movies. But the real star of American Assassin is a scenery chewing Michael Keaton. The veteran actor is having a blast as the tough veteran of the CIA. One particularly grizzly sequence where he’s character is being tortured brings out a demented side to Keaton that hasn’t really been seen in a movie since Beetlejuice.
The script for American Assassin, credited to Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Ed Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, begins to stumble when the story becomes a series of double crosses and reveals. Many of the big twists are pretty obvious to even the most casual of viewer. All of which sets the stage for a laughably absurd finale which I won’t spoil but it’s really quite dumb. It’s a myopic conclusion that really mirrors a simplistic worldview that robs any debate about how to combat terrorism of any nuance. Perhaps if American Assassin didn’t try to pawn itself off as a reflection to current events with its use of current events and just leaned into action insanity that the finale of the film wouldn’t feel so odd and ridiculous.
Much like Michael Cuesta’s last film, Kill the Messenger, which also dealt with the dirty dealings of the CIA, American Assassin is half of a really good movie. Part of me wishes that Cuesta could get his hands on a script that is solid from start to finish because he’s crafted some really suspenseful moments in what is his first action film. American Assassin does handle its violence quite well, with some shocking and disgusting use of squibs that don’t allow the film to fall into the soft PG-13 form of bloodless violence. This is movie is a hard R. But American Assassin can’t sustain its early momentum to the finish line.