American Assassin and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate Films
Directed by Michael Cuesta
I don’t know about you, but I’m just happy that we’re not gonna be seeing any more trailers for this now that the movie has finally come out as its second only to Flatliners as far as obnoxiously overplayed teasers whenever I go to the cinema. Still, just because they overdid it with the marketing for this (at least for the movies I went to see) doesn’t mean it’ll be a bad film, and if nothing else it at least has the Birdman himself to lend a bit of charm to this! Does this manage to be a decent enough spy thriller that I forget just how annoying it was seeing the trailers over and over again, or are we in for the worst spy film since Cars 2? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) and his girlfriend Katrina (charlotte Vega) enjoying a vacation in Spain that is capped off with Mitch proposing to her and Katrina saying yes! Okay, ACTUALLY it gets capped off with a bunch of terrorist dudes start fucking shit up and one of them (Shahid Ahmed) fires a few rounds right through Katrina’s chest. Mitch then spends the next eighteen months training his ass off and embedding himself into the same terrorist cell that launched the beach attack, and this somehow works as he ends up face to face with the man who shot his wife under the guise of joining his cell. Before he can stick a knife in his throat however, AMERICA bursts through the front door and drills FREEDOM right into the heads of each and every terrorist there; luckily sparing Mitch but also taking out his target before he could. Now you’d think this would be the end of Mitch’s story as he’d either go to jail for trying to join terrorists or at the very least be pointed to a decent counselor to help deal with his grief, but that’s not what Deputy CIA Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) has in mind!! She decides to recruit this lone wolf for OFFICIAL assignments and sends him to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to put a bit of discipline in him and see if he can be an effective weapon for the CIA. Well I guess they’ll have to find out sooner than they thought as some nuclear material is stolen out of Russia and seems to be heading to Iran by way of a MYSTERIOUS mercenary known as GHOST, and clearly Mitch, along with Stan, a red shirt (Scott Adkins) and another spy named Annika (Shiva Negar), are the ONLY ONES WHO CAN STOP HIM! Will Dylan find a way to satisfy his bloodlust now that the target of his revenge was prematurely terminated? Who is this MYSTERIOUS Ghost and why does he have the most generic mercenary name imaginable? Was this SERIOUSLY a book first? Someone wrote this shit down!?
YEEESH, this freaking movie. Sigh… look I’ve CERTAINLY seen worse this year and I can absolutely think of movies MUCH more problematic than this one, but I’m honestly not in the freaking mood to be watching jingoistic Bang-Bang-Shoot-em-ups where a bunch of white dudes kill a bunch of brown dudes to avenge dead white women. Honestly, as far as this movie goes to be taken seriously as a nuanced view of the War on Terror WHILE ALSO taking no chances and making it as safe for white people as possible, it comes off like Team America World Police only if the film wasn’t in on the joke. Like I said, it’s not as bad as SOME examples I could name (*cough* London Has Fallen *cough*) mostly because there’s a decently MADE movie inside of the less than stellar story, but jabs at modern day fascist bugbears like the Iran Nuclear Deal or terrorist attacks in Europe sink any real possibility of this story being taken remotely seriously and what we’re left with is just a mediocre spy film that’s got a decent cinematographer on set but not much else to even take notice of. Also, I’m pretty sure that the dude isn’t even an assassin, so they couldn’t even get the title right!
We’ll start off with what this movie gets right which is admittedly a short list but is still worth pointing out. For the most part, the movie looks just fine and the action scenes, while a bit bland at points, are easy enough to follow and get the job done of moving the plot forward and keeping the tension up. I noticed a few awkward shots here and there (mostly whenever they have to do close ups) but for the most part the camera knows how to get in close on the action to keep things intense while also giving enough room so as we don’t get lost in whatever is going on. They’ve also managed to get a few solid actors on hand with Michael Keaton and Taylor Kitsch stealing the show with the former playing the seasoned veteran role and the latter playing a former operative with a grudge. It’s taken STRAIGHT out of Skyfall to be sure and both Judy Dench and Javier Bardem did it better there, but both actors imbue a lot of pathos into their roles with their final confrontation in the third act being the highlight of the film. Sadly the same can’t be said for Dylan O’Brien’s character who isn’t POORLY portrayed, but also isn’t given enough to do besides be a whiny entitled brat that JUST SO HAPPENS to be the best damn super-duper spy dude that this country has ever seen (or something like that). It’s not a role that calls for a lot of range because you get the sense that he’s basically a self-insert character for the audience of this film to vicariously live their KILLIN’ TERRORIST urges through, but so much of the movie focuses on HIM and how much HE’S the iconoclast here that it gets rather obnoxious and he starts to feel like a Mary Sue (or a Gary Stu I guess?) by the time the plot ACTUALLY starts rolling after the first act.
The biggest problem with this movie is its unwillingness to be challenging in any way and therefore reinforces a worldview that MIGHT get ignorant butts in seats, but no doubt makes it an absolute chore to sit through for anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge on the subjects they’re trying to tackle. Sure, I love me some ultra violent power fantasies as much as the next person, but this RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES gritty realism layered on top of a poorly realized and extremely stock action script makes the whole thing feel so much crasser than it really needed to be. Like I said, there ARE some good performances in here as well as some decent cinematography; but why would I want to sit through this white boy’s unbearable hero’s journey just to get to that? Fine, the guy has more than enough reason to be angry about what happened, but this isn’t Bruce Wayne becoming Batman (despite the presence of Michael Keaton); this is a VERY traumatized individual who’s not only refusing to get the help that he genuinely needs but is ALSO being backed by the US Government to continue unhealthy expressing his PTSD. The movie NEVER genuinely challenges Dylan O’Brien for his behavior, no matter how short sighted, selfish, and petulant, he acts and every time he DOES do something like that the movie ultimately rewards him by showing these actions to be “clever” or “logical” which they only are in the magical realism of a spy film that this movie tries so hard to downplay with its extremely grim presentation. AT MOST, you get the wise trainer in the form of Michael Keaton beating some knowledge into him, but they still never bother going deep into his sense of misdirected aggression and how detrimental that kind of behavior ultimately is in solving anything; especially in a quasi-military situation where teamwork, mutual respect, and a COOL HEAD are absolutely crucial. He’s a liability throughout this which in and of itself COULD have made for a really interesting film (if this all turned out to be a HUGE mistake and the missions he undertakes end up shattering him completely), but the film is constantly putting this Weekend Warrior dip shit on a pedestal which in turn makes the politics of this movie pretty damn toxic.
It’s one thing for our main character to want revenge for the death of a loved one. It’s another thing to THEN spend the WHOLE MOVIE demonizing brown people while extolling the virtues of this guy’s single minded hatred. It’s not just the fact that the majority of bad guys in here are Muslims, all of whom are ACTUALLY the pawns of a pissed off white guy; it’s the way the movie frames specific shots to bolster that viewpoint. This movie REALLY has a thing about having brown dudes shoot white women and not just the girlfriend of Dylan O’Brien whose death is his (and the film’s) justification for becoming an asshole vigilante. That scene was bad enough, but at least it had an in universe justification as the guy shooting here was a terrorist. There’s a scene later where a freaking BODYGUARD shoots a white women in the face for NO REASON! Whether the Muslims are terrorists, hired guards, personal assistants, corrupt government officials looking to nuke Israel, or even fighting on the same side as the American White People (and yes, the coding of White as American is DEFINITELY present here) are shown to be terrible, cowardly, and completely untrustworthy. I still don’t ENTIRELY get what Shiva Negar’s whole deal was considering what we ultimately find out about here, but this movie certainly came up with an excuse to beat the shit out of her and almost drown her. Oh yeah, remember when I said the movie rewards Dylan O’Brien for CONSTANTLY being a whiny, petulant, and revenge filled jerk? Well Shiva gets ONE moment of that in here but when SHE does it the movie makes a CLEAR point about it being the WORST THING she could have done at that exact moment. Does this movie even REALIZE how full of crap it is!?
This movie is a jingoistic wank fest that only manages to be better than something as straightforwardly hateful as London Has Fallen by virtue of its slightly above average production and the fact that our main character doesn’t shout “go back to Fuck-Head-istan” at some point. I cannot recommend paying good money to see this in the theater, but there might be JUST enough there for an enjoyable bad movie night as my comparison to Team America World Police is not made lightly. It takes itself seriously enough for some of the material to be laughable, particularly in how much the US Government is willing to invest in some pissy loner with a mean streak, but be aware that it can get pretty gross at times and is honestly a bit too cliché to be THAT enjoyable even if we ignore its rather unpalatable framing. I may have been somewhat disappointed with Atomic Blonde but that’s SO much better than this, not only in terms of its messaging but just in pure cinematic film making. Also, just throwing this out there, I’m pretty sure Charlize Theron could EASILY take Dylan O’Brien in a fight.