Even if you didn’t know that this movie was based on a book by author Vince Flynn, fifteen minutes into the movie, you’d be able to tell that this is a story that belongs somewhere in the political thrillers of the books you can buy in an airport. You’ve got all the greatest hits lined up in just the first act of the movie. When Mitch Rapp’s fiance is killed on vacation (tragic backstory) in a terrorist attack on a beach in Spain (radical terrorists), Rapp dedicates his life to revenge (vigilante). After eighteen months (training montages) Rapp finally scores an opportunity to meet his fiance’s killer face to face only to have his moment of triumph taken from him by an ambush from U.S. Special Forces. Rapp is then offered a chance to join Orion (secret government organization of super spies) which is lead by Stan Hurley, a Former U.S. Navy SEAL (gruff teacher who will become a father figure).
You can make a pretty good guess as to where the movie goes from there. It continues along the most expected path, filling out the political thriller bingo card with items such as “stolen nuclear device,” and “evil rouge former agent,” and “hotshot protagonist who doesn’t follow orders.” You can just about set your watch to the pacing of this movie. This is the point where someone gets captured, this is the point where there is shocking new information revealed, this is another training montage. It’s the kind of movie that you swear you’ve already seen on TV at some point even though it’s still in the theaters. But, perhaps because of its paint by the numbers plot, something interesting starts to develop as you watch the movie.
If you’re just watching the movie for the gunfights and car chases, you’ll be pleased with the quality of action that the movie has. You get a pretty large variety of action, some close quarters hand to hand sequences are mixed in with chases that move across a whole city. Because of the amount of the movie that’s dedicated to the training of Rapp before we get into the actual plot, we end up getting to see a good deal of “spy tactics” being used by our heroes. The action set pieces work really well, it would just be better if the movie knew its strongest points where the action, and we didn’t have to dedicate so much time to going through the plot.
Dylan O’Brien stars as Mitch Rapp and does a fairly impressive job of transitioning from the teen roles that he’s become known for. O’Brien is able to play off the cocky attitude that is required for the “too cool for school” character the movie wants him to be, but he’s able to add a bit of depth to the character. O’Brien’s performance keeps in mind that the character’s origin comes from a moment of pain and despair, and doesn’t immediately head off in the world saving, thrill seeking direction. It should come as a surprise to nobody however, that the star of the movie ends up being Michael Keaton who plays Hurley, the aforementioned US Navy SEAL/tough as nails instructor/eventual father figure. Keaton has enjoyed quite a career resurgence over the past few years, so a role that would have felt like the best that we could expect Keaton to get just a few years ago, now feels a lot more like a paycheck role. Keaton of course, earns that paycheck by chewing every piece of the scenery that he can get his hands on. Keaton throws himself, full tilt, into the role, and is the most fun part of the movie to watch. You end up wishing that this was Keaton’s “old guy who’s still got it” action movie a la Taken or The Equalizer instead of Keaton being put in the mentor role to the new, young, sexy spy.
American Assassin is chronologically the first book in a series with more than fifteen installments, so CBS is clearly hoping to kick off a franchise here. (That’s part of the reason that a young actor was chosen to play Rapp over a bigger name) Unfortunately, with only one movie made so far, this feels like a franchise that already has nothing new left to say.