“American Assassin” stars Dylan O’Brien as CIA asset Mitch Rapp. The paperback-based Rapp is an action hero akin to Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, and I’ll even throw James Bond in there. O’Brien is best known for the “Maze Runner” series, a teenagers-in-a-dystopian-future franchise akin to “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” and “The Host.” All he needs now is an unimaginative superhero film and he’ll be the king of late-to-the-party knockoffs.
Rapp is so typical of heroes of this genre. He suffers a trauma, feels haunted, trains to be a killer, lives without direction except for a need for revenge, the government shows interest in him, he’s shaped by a tough-love mentor (Michael Keaton), he doesn’t follow rules or orders but he gets results, etc. Of the similar heroes I mentioned earlier, his personality most closely resembles Reacher’s – smug and rude. People say that Tom Cruise has enough of a presence to get away with that style, and I don’t even agree with that assessment, so suffice to say that I don’t think novice pretty-boy O’Brien can pull it off either.
The theme of taking things personally runs throughout the movie. Rapp’s fiancé is gunned down in a supposedly impersonal terrorist attack by a gunman who seems to delight in targeting her just to antagonize Rapp (shooting her a second time when she’s mortally wounded is just bad manners, then again so is shooting her in the first place). Rapp is so blinded in his need for revenge on the gunman that when the CIA takes out the terror cell, he just has to get in a pointless cheap shot. Keaton tries to teach him not to let personal anger get the best of him, but he can’t help but kill some despicable targets who could have provided useful intel. It turns out that the villain (Taylor Kitsch) is also ignoring Keaton’s advice, because he’s carrying out an attack that is very, very personal. He even takes some nerve-touching swipes at Rapp to gain a psychological advantage.
The film teases a romantic subplot between Rapp and a Turkish agent named Annika (Shiva Negar). Thankfully the relationship doesn’t go as predictably as I expected, but the direction it does take isn’t very inspired either. And it climaxes in an astoundingly stupid decision on Annika’s part.
The film does do one thing to separate itself from its spy-game brethren. Whereas most of these films are satisfied with a PG-13 rating, this one goes for an R with coarse language and bloody violence. Neither is exactly out of place given how tensions are high and a lot of people are getting killed, but they don’t make the movie more interesting. Having copious amounts of blood is not the same as having a heart. The film is dull with or without the language and violence, all the R rating does is close it off to a wider audience.
Not even Michael Keaton can save “American Assassin.” Here is an actor who helped guide two movies in a row (2014’s “Birdman” and 2015’s “Spotlight”) to Best Picture Academy Awards and he has little to do here besides spout hardened mentor clichés and rip off Mel Gibson from the torture scene in “Lethal Weapon.” An even bigger problem is Dylan O’Brien. I’m certainly glad to see he’s recovered from his highly-publicized head injury, but maybe he should take some low-key roles for a while because right now being an action hero is not for him. In this role he lacks charisma and credibility, not that any actor could do much with this heavily-recycled material. About the only positive thing I can say about “American Assassin” is that it moves along at a brisk pace, so it’s never long before the next underwhelming attempt at a thrill.
“American Assassin” is rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language and nudity. Its running time is 111 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.