Before his too-soon death in 2013 from cancer, author Vince Flynn made a nice name for himself as the creator of the Mitch Rapp series of thriller/black-ops novels—so much so that CBS Films snapped up the rights to his entire book series (eight-strong at that point) with an eye on making a big-time flick franchise out of it.
Their first offering is American Assassin, based on Flynn’s eleventh book—the first chronologically—and directed by Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger). Starring The Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien as Rapp and Michael Keaton as his mentor Stan Hurley, it has no short of potential, certainly, but those two casting choices turn out to be the sole bright spots in the entire effort.
An ultimately sloppy and lazy flick, Assassin comes off as little more than a run-of-the-mill action thriller, desperately attempting to introduce us to the next Jason Bourne or John Wick or Ethan Hunt but to no avail. Whereas those films all had high-level smarts about them, Assassin feels entirely unoriginal and often downright silly, culminating with one of the more unbelievable (in a bad way) third acts in recent memory.
Assassin begins with Rapp, pre-recruitment, proposing to his girlfriend while vacationing in Ibiza. Moments later an ISIS-like terror squad invades the beach, opening fire with reckless abandon, killing her and seriously injuring him. Eighteen months later, Rapp has committed his life to infiltrating the cell and avenging his fiancée’s death. He’s learned Arabic, mastered the Koran, and honed himself into a finely-tuned soldier. He’s also caught the eye of the CIA, who has been monitoring his every action. He’s a loose cannon, sure, but Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) sees the diamond in the rough, and brings him in for intense debriefings. After a month, he’s assigned to work with Hurley, an ex-Navy SEAL who runs a super-intense, high-tech training camp out of his remote cabin in the Virginia woods.
As it so happens, just as Rapp comes on board, a hefty stash of weapons-grade plutonium goes missing, giving him and his buddies their first mission. And even though Rapp is still raw and lets his emotions get in the way more often than not, Hurley decides to give him a shot. Sure enough Rapp goes rogue, and even though he accomplishes his part of the mission, he gets an earful from Hurley, still steaming from the kid’s recklessness.
That same back-and-forth continues for most of the movie, growing more than a little tedious after the twelfth or fifteenth time. We can all see Rapp is elite, and we obviously know how this is all going to play out, even as the evil mastermind behind the nuclear plot is revealed to be someone with his own ties to Hurley.
Plot holes and questionable motivations abound, but Keaton and O’Brien actually help keep Assassin somewhat afloat with their work. If you can just forget about that whole pesky “plot” thing (and leave before the ludicrous finale) and instead focus on the performances and the occasional, isolated action sequence, you may be able to make it through the whole movie without rolling your eyes. But I wouldn’t bet on it.