Overview: After his girlfriend dies in a terrorist attack, a self-sanctioned renegade is taken into a secret training program and quickly assigned to a dangerous mission regarding stolen nuclear materials; Lionsgate Films; 2017; 111 Minutes.
Honor: The book upon which Michael Cuesta’s new film American Assassin is based, Vince Flynn’s novel of the same name, was written in 2008. Production on Cuesta’s film started in early 2016. There would have been no way for Cuesta and Lionsgate to predict the world into which they would be releasing their movie, an obvious attempt to spark a new action series. But movies are products of their moment and of the current moment much more than they are the product of their moment of production. And even if American Assassin weren’t released into a world in which its plot and thematic elements were a violently jagged fit, it would still operate as Ender’s Game fan fiction transposed upon spy literature and sponsored by Monster Energy Drink.
Duty: Moreover, American Assassin is rather dull in its factory bought parts. Aside from Michael Keaton, who is maybe a little too good at nihilistic special-ops mentor Hurley, there is no singular part of American Assassin that pursues its own value. Hero Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brian) maintains a level of novel intrigue in the film’s opening chapter that quickly fades once he’s plucked from his renegade missions and placed into an operative arc that we’ve seen a million times before. O’Brian is surprisingly slight of frame, particularly compared to his tight cotton T-shirt clad trainee peers, and his in-the-field fighting style Is strangely nimble, a sort of Spider-Man-like skill set that sees him crawling over the bodies of his opponent in a way that Enrique Chediak’s camera struggles to keep in frame.
CIA Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) exists within the story only to progress and narrate narrative details of the conflict, and Annika (Shiva Negar), the only other woman of any substance in a very bro-heavy film, serves only to bend the plot when it needs bent, a deadly second hand to Rapp when its needed and a turning double agent shortly thereafter who then re-teams with Rapp just long enough to clear a tunnel and inexplicably remove herself from the story in a manner which is not supported by any earlier emotional labor.
These performances are all given in pursuit of a villain named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), a former trainee from the same program as Rapp, whose motivation never blossoms beyond a nuclear tantrum. When Rapp finally gets his showdown with Ghost, both characters are so morally and psychologically under-developed, they become all that much more indistinguishable, which is already a problem given that all that separates their respective appearances is two shades on the L’Oreal hair dye scale and a 25 dollar Supercut.
Patriotism: And all of this in service to a story recycles familiar spy and combat movies and adds in yet another dose of testosterone. I don’t like to say “We don’t need this movie right now,” but, in a world that has one crazy dictator flinging nuclear capable rockets willy nilly and, developing nuclear power wild cards all over the globe, and an unhinged American president shouting nuclear threats on Twitter from the toilet every morning with no regulation or consultation, in a world where intercontinental nuclear relations are more unstable than ever, I’m just not sure who would want this film. Again, there’s no way American Assassin could have predicted the global mess into which it would be released, but there seems to be no time over the last 100 years in which a lesser regulated and unaccountable military entity, one whose personnel are taught to be even more hyper-masculine than previous like-minded movie soldiers and one whose only motto seems to be “never make anything personal,” was a welcome answer to any nuclear problem.
There’s a moment after the climax in which it looks like all of Rapp’s efforts are going to be futile, wherein a nuclear bomb detonates in very close proximity to a fleet of American warships, but the blast threatens annihilation anyway, and in this moment I allowed myself to imagine an unexpected mission failure, a tragic conclusion that might at least paint the titular patriotism in shades of dark irony. But of course, in the end, everything works out, as it tends to do in these films.
During his training, Rapp is told by Hurley that “patriotism” is a thing invented so guys like the two of them can have something to believe in. But what does that mean for the rest of us? Those of us who just want a simpler life where things can be taken personally? Those of us at the mercy of the nuclear conflicts with which these assassin agents are playing a violent chess game? After the bomb is detonated in the ocean, leaving a tsunami to crash upon the unsuspecting military fleet, Kennedy speaks to the generals through the radio and before loss of life is even measured, she leaves them with “My prayers are with you.”
Chilling to think that that’s the best that the best can offer.
Overall: American Assassin is an ill-timed and dully constructed action film. The first distinction is no fault of its own. The second, however, it earns quite impressively.