American Assassin (2017)
Dir.: Michael Cuesta
American Assassin is the kind of Hollywood action film that really likes to think it has more on its mind than it actually does. Within the first thirty minutes, it attempts to lay an audacious premise: a young man's fiance is killed while they're on vacation by a group of terrorists, and he trains for 18 months afterward to take on the entire radical Islamic movement by himself, and even more outrageous, he actually seems like he might do a pretty decent job of it. Already from the intro the film feels like a made-for-TNT movie with a premise that requires an absurd suspension of disbelief, but the film expects the audience to commit to this further when protagonist Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) must undergo training through the ORION spec-ops program, headed by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton.) What unfolds from this B-movie premise is pretty much exactly what you might expect, plus a few wasted acting roles and some long, underwritten plot mechanisms and some dialogue that feels ripped out of a teenager's creative writing journal.
The film can never decide whether it wants to be a fast-paced spy thriller or a slow burn political thriler, so it poorly emulates both. Unfortunately, the writing feels far too weak to accomodate such large shifts in genre and tone. It definitely shows that this script was written by four different people, as it never feels like it's telling one singular story. It tries to tell a story of a man driven on angry, righteous vengeance, a different story with diplomatic tensions between different nations' relationships with more political and conspiratorial intrigue, another different story about the ramifications of the war on terror in the current era...the list goes on. At the hands of a more skilled director, this might not be as big of an issue, but the fact of the matter is that so many different visions of where the story should go collide that it never feels like American Assassin accumulates a coherent theme other than basic revenge. Additionally, the story always remains far too grim and serious, providing a false sense of sincerity that further taints the viewing experience. It's a boring, uninspired, insulting narrative.
The acting in the film is further wasteful icing on this vile, sewage-filled cake. It's a shame, because while I don't dislike Dylan O'Brien, this film tries to convince the viewer that he's capable of being the next action star. His stuntwork and choreography are seemingly sound, but the viewer is never able to care about Rapp's sense of well-being because by the first ten minutes of the film he is shown to be an espionage savant. Michael Keaton is particularly and disgustingly wasted in this film, as though he fits the role well, he never really shows the same kinds of acting chops he seems to have tried to relay through his recent dramatic renaissance. He has some fun in one key, violent scene in the third act, but he never feels like he's particularly invested in the material. Taylor Kitsch, Sanaa Lathan, and the rest of the cast, their characters and performances all feel obligatory more than meaningful, and nobody really holds the film to any kind of standard of enjoyment or meritable acting prowess. If a film is bad, the acting can still be enjoyable (or enjoyably bad,) but unfortunately, no passion is present in this material, therefore, it constantly feels like cable TV trash.
The directing and technical prowess of the film are simply servicable. I'll admit that there is one above-average, visceral action scene involving Rapp in a luxury hotel having to dodge assault rifle gunfire before engaging close in a knife fight. This, unfortunately, is only one in a handful of plot-driven action scenes, and it's the only one that actually felt like it enhanced the stakes of the film and gave me any kind of reaction. The score is standard post-Bourne bass and ambience, and it really threatened to put me to sleep several times because of how cliched and overly familiar it felt. I've never seen a Michael Cuesta film before this one, and if he has any kind of directing style, it's buried here beneath generic cliches and annoying writing. The camerawork is mostly pedestrian and there are many times it feels like the film is coasting along, wanting itself to be over even before the viewer realizes this is a messy dump of a film. It's a shame because this film had some compelling ingredients that never meshed together.
American Assassin, for as patriotic and as enticing as its title may seem, is really just a chimp with a BB gun in terms of execution and composition. It never has the focus to make a coherent, meaningful film, nor does it pack the right kinds of punch to make even the messiest screenplay enjoyable to watch from a technical and action standpoint. Perhaps if this film were made twenty years ago, before the Mission Impossible and Bourne franchises refined the contemporary spy thriller genre and crafted the kinds of cliches this film uses, it could have been a fun throwaway thriller. As it stands, though, American Assassin is fodder for streaming services that might not even be worth a free watch on that kind of platform.