American Assassin

2017-09-16 11:11
 

What it's about:

Mitch Rapp is a rising CIA black ops recruit under the instruction of Cold War veteran Stan Hurley. The two are enlisted by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy to investigate a wave of apparently random attacks on both military and civilian targets. Together, the three discover a pattern in the violence, leading them to a joint mission with a lethal Turkish agent to stop a mysterious operative intent on starting a World War in the Middle East.

What we thought: 

American Assassin has the sort of title that immediately brings to mind fairly straightforward action-thrillers that, more often than not, find their home on late night TV, where they can be enjoyed by insomniacs and undiscerning action junkies. I've long railed against these kinds of films taking the place of much worthier films in our local cinemas – and I stand by that – but in the case of American Assassin things aren't quite so simple. And, sadly, I don't mean that in a good way.

What we have here, very simply, is a film suffering with a major identity crisis; a crisis that only gets exponentially worse as the film goes on. 

The opening scene of the film, to start, sets a particularly bleak tone as a beautiful and romantic beach holiday for our hero and his vivacious, loving girlfriend soon turns into the stuff of nightmares as a senseless and bloodily brutal terrorist attack leaves dozens of young holiday-makers dead or dying with their panicked screams barely drowning out the matter-of-fact rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire. 

It's horrible, disturbing and incredibly violent and seems to set the stage for a serious, no-nonsense look at terrorism and its effect on both the people who are victim to it and those who have sacrificed everything to fight it. It's the kind of shockingly effective opening that sets up a film that will no doubt be gruelling, tough and rather humourless but one that would surely work as the kind of visceral, realistic spy-thriller at which writers like John Le Carre and Greg Rucka excel.

This is, however, not that film. At least, not usually. It is, quite undoubtedly, almost entirely lacking in anything remotely resembling a sense of humour and it is indeed never much fun at all but director Michael Cuesta and his veritable army of screenwriters (working off a novel by Vince Flynn) have confused seriousness with po-faced sombreness. As the film gets more and more silly and more and more generic in a sub-Bourne kind of way - ultimately ending in a climax that may well work with the heightened reality of a Bond film but feels a million miles away from what the film started as - it becomes increasingly clear that the film has no earthly idea what it's trying to be and ends up falling between more stools than it can count. 

It's too sombre, humourless and occasionally upsetting to work as a fun action film and way too frivolous and increasingly ridiculous to work at all as a serious look at the messy business of counter-terrorism and spying. It's also too focused on its underwhelming plot to do true justice to its characters and its plot is way too generic and uninvolving for it to do so. 

This doesn't mean that there aren't individual scenes that work quite well or that Michael Keaton doesn't once again bring his A-game to the proceedings but even the best set-pieces get lost in the messy narrative and the greatness of Keaton's almost unhinged performance as a hard-ass drill instructor is weighed down by his carrying co-stars who simply aren't working on anywhere near his level. 

Dylan O'Brien is very good as an out-of-his-depth everyman whose calamitous personal loss drives him to seek bloody revenge on those who wronged him but when the film thrusts him into full-bodied action hero mode, he unfortunately largely fails to convince. Taylor Kitsch, on the other hand, is just horribly miscast from top to bottom. He doesn't have the gravitas to pull off his role as a ruthless and unstoppable bad guy and he is no less ineffective when the film tries to give us a better idea of who he is.

Not that this is all Kitsch's fault: Not only is he obviously miscast but the character he plays goes from being barely defined to ludicrous with motivations – and a super obvious past – that are too daft to even work as a lame villain in one of the lesser James Bond films. Someone like Timothy Olyphant, who looks a bit like Kitsch but is a far better actor and can bring real menace and threat to his roles, might have made something of this badly written, cartoonish villain but Kitsch just doesn't have what it takes to do anything but highlight how bad the material is.  

So, yes, Keaton's late period renaissance may continue unabated here but, unfortunately, he is pretty much the only thing to really recommend about American Assassin. The film is nicely put together on a purely technical level – that opening scene really is impressively awful - but its storytelling is too scatter-shot and its tonal shifts way too extreme to recommend it as anything but a somewhat interesting failure. 

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