While the world contemplates a nuclear-armed North Korea, is a thriller about a rogue nuke the sort of entertainment people are looking for? When it’s as faux-political as American Assassin, the answer just might be yes. Built for action, like its title character, the movie packs a muscular, bloody punch, but mainly it’s a well-oiled diversion.
Director Michael Cuesta, operating more in the vein of his work on Homeland than such features as L.I.E. and Kill the Messenger, proves impressively deft at orchestrating large-scale sequences. The globe-hopping story of covert U.S. operatives zeroing in on terrorist factions and renegade mercenaries clearly aims to separate itself from other popcorn spy thrillers based on airport novels. Yet even with its masterful set pieces and Michael Keaton’s ferociously enjoyable turn as a badass CIA trainer, chances are that you’ll have stopped thinking about it by the time you exit the theater.
A beefed-up Dylan O’Brien, of the Maze Runner films and the series Teen Wolf, steps into a potential new franchise role in this origin story of black-ops recruit Mitch Rapp, the main character in more than a dozen novels by the late Vince Flynn. In the opening sequence he’s a young man beside himself with happiness as he proposes to his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega), during their vacation on Ibiza (Thailand subs for the Spanish isle). With an overcast tint to the seaside sunlight and a nervous charge to the camerawork, Cuesta and photography director Enrique Chediak expertly turn this hopeful scene into one that’s fraught with dread from the get-go. It ends in a bloodbath, with dozens of beachgoers mowed down by Uzi-wielding gunmen. Among the dead is Rapp’s fiancee.
O’Brien convincingly conveys the change in Rapp when we next see him, a year and half later. Having quit his graduate studies in order to devote himself to avenging Katrina’s murder, he’s a man filled with purpose and yet hollowed out. He’s taught himself marksmanship and martial arts as well as Arabic, and by the time he infiltrates the Libyan cell of Mansur (Shahid Ahmed), the group responsible for Katrina’s death, U.S. intelligence has been watching him closely enough to swoop in for his longed-for kill. Then they swoop in for Rapp.
Though the CIA director (David Suchet) has his doubts, his counterterrorism chief, Irene Kennedy — the epitome of cool, tough composure in Sanaa Lathan's performance — deems Rapp just the ticket for the inner sanctum of covert operations. Orphaned as a teenager and now deprived of his life partner, he has the perfect psychological profile she seeks in a killing machine. The violence percolating in this mild-looking twenty-something is so boundless that he doesn’t know how to channel it, which gets him kicked out of his gym for pummeling a wrestling partner. Enter CIA trainer Stan Hurley (Keaton), a gruff ex-Navy SEAL who runs a boot camp in the Virginia woods. Putting the gusto in sadism, Hurley delights in rearranging the expectations of overconfident whippersnappers like Rapp. The poundings get tiresome, but a virtual reality training session is a pretty nifty bit of spycraft.
The screenplay, credited to four accomplished writers, abounds in cliches and jargon that feel tired but probably reflect the bureaucratese of this sphere (“He’s testing through the roof!”). The dialogue also hammers home the material’s supposed big ideas about the damage and sacrifice entailed in a super-soldier’s resolve, much as Hurley keeps spouting mantras about there being no room for emotion when you’re going mano a mano with the enemy. Alright already, we get it.
The urgent matter that puts Rapp in the field alongside Hurley, another CIA trainee (Scott Adkins) and an imperturbable Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar), is a whole lotta weapons-grade plutonium that’s gone missing from a Russian facility. The operatives get busy targeting an arms dealer (Khalid Laith), beginning with his assistant (Tolga Safer), and then track down the physicist (Sharif Dorani) who has been hired to turn the raw material into a bomb.
As the team moves around Europe, sometimes wreaking havoc in public spaces, an American agent turned mercenary, Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), emerges as a crucial piece of the puzzle. That he was trained by Hurley is an obvious paradox, one that the filmmakers attempt to frame here as a powerful dramatic complexity: When the two meet face-to-face, in gruesome circumstances, something potentially more gripping and pathological surfaces, and Hurley’s admonitions about avoiding the personal turn into a simplistic case of “Doctor, heal thyself.”
With Chediak’s fluid camerawork and Conrad Buff’s dynamic editing, Cuesta makes seamless work of demanding, high-intensity action sequences in the midst of crowded city centers including Warsaw, Istanbul and Rome (only the latter was an actual production location) and in more private quarters, like a high-rise apartment. A climactic showdown on the sea, involving a speedboat, helicopter and the U.S. fleet, combines ace visual effects with live action for a near-disaster of chilling, thrilling proportions, with Steven Price’s score suggesting the shifting of tectonic plates.
Those thrills are the movie’s true subject; though there are mentions of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal and a geopolitical hotspot or two, its concern is a sort of free-floating danger, dressed in recognizable national generalities. And for all the interest in the making of an assassin, and the lurid realities of the job — all monsters torture, but some monsters are good — the killing and mayhem become so numbing that even a key character’s death, late in the proceedings, stirs no emotion.
But while the filmmakers certainly understand that audiences have become inured to the spectacle of human bloodshed, they, and their killing-machine hero, wisely take special care not to hurt a trio of watchdogs who corner Mitch Rapp. Not all collateral damage is created equal.
Production companies: di Bonaventura Pictures, Nick Wechsler Productions
Distributors: CBS Films, Lionsgate
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, David Suchet, Taylor Kitsch, Navid Negahban, Scott Adkins, Charlotte Vega, Joseph Long, Mohammad Bakri, Tolga Safer, Khalid Laith, Sharif Dorani, Vladimir Friedman, Shahid Ahmed
Director: Michael Cuesta
Screenwriters: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz; based on the novel by Vince Flynn
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Nick Wechsler
Executive producer: Daniel M. Stillman
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Andrew Laws
Costume designer: Anna Sheppard
Editor: Conrad Buff
Composer: Steven Price
Casting director: Elaine Grainger
Rated R, 112 minutes