A victim of a terrorist attack after proposing to his girlfriend, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) vows to avenge her death and sets out to track down the terrorists himself. His vendetta brings him to the attention of the CIA who induct him into the secret Orion black ops programme run by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) under the supervision of CIA Deputy Director (Sanaa Lathan) but when a plot to assemble a nuclear weapon by Iranian dissidents is uncovered, Mitch finds himself thrust into a mission where the stakes are more than personal.
“American Assassin” starts out like a right wing, hawkish, MAGA wet dream; all the bad guys have brown skin, women are unreliable and not to be trusted, moral and ethical oversights are mere inconveniences to be circumvented in order to deliver a Big Gulp-size serving of jUStice. If Dick Cheney was a movie, he would be “American Assassin”. It’s mildly gratifying, then, that it eventually transpires that the real bad guy is a home-grown white terrorist although his motivations are a little bit muddled. The twist is unlikely to bother the popcorn shovelling, red MAGA hat-wearing crowd too much because by the time the film attempts this pivot, we’re knee deep in corpses of colour and ‘merica is galloping to the rescue of the apparently helpless Europeans whose only role in this movie is to serve as the playing field for a convoluted grudge match between Iran, America and Israel. As a projection of the worldview of America’s current spineless bully-in-chief, the movie’s geopolitical stance is everything you’d expect. The Islamic terrorists are running around Europe utterly unchecked, attacking at will and if the USA doesn’t step in to save the Iranian nuclear deal (that neither side seems particularly keen on), then who will?
So far, so par for the course with globe-trotting spy adventures, but the film’s tone actively works against it as soon as the admittedly effective opening beach attack scene concludes. Having been in development since 2008, it so desperately wants to be a kind of “Bourne Begins” but ends up being more like “Kingsman: The Secret Service” without the irony and with zero sense of humour. Like Bond – who more successfully adopted the more muscular Bourne approach – its completely unprepared for the fact the action movie paradigm has shifted once again, thanks to the aforementioned London tailoring establishment and the stylistic vendettas of “John Wick”. Steeped in a ridiculously po-faced machismo, the more seriously the movie takes itself, the sillier it becomes. It can’t even apparently see the contradiction in fetishising America’s ability to project military power without limits or oversight in a film which offhandedly shows that a lone actor makes more progress infiltrating a key terrorist cell in eighteen months than the entire intelligence apparatus does in years. This is toxic masculinity American style, and you’d better believe it’s serving up a super-sized portion of cojones, hold the logic and common sense.
Keaton’s archly hardass Orion commander, in particular, is aggressively, stupidly inconsistent; full of bombastic, testosteronic nonsense posing unconvincingly as grizzled gnomic wisdom. It’s hard to regard him as credible due to the fact he consistently favours the clearly incompetent and monstrously conspicuous quarterback-size ‘secret’ agent for covert field work over our hero, for narrative convenience. From what we’re shown, all he seems to teach them is how to take a beating. Indeed the gratuitous torture scene (awkwardly forced into the movie to secure the ‘so hot right now’ 18 Certificate/ Hard-R rating the movie thinks it needs) heavily implies that he’s actually just a super-hardcore BDSM enthusiast who uses black ops missions as his ‘cover’.
Director Michael Cuesta seems to have no idea how to effectively convey the passage of time and, thanks to some clumsy editing, at one point, seems to suggest Mitch has completed the stringent and extreme Orion training regimen in about two days. The film’s big action finale is a complete clusterfuck of incompetent filmmaking and real world ignorance. Factors such as countdown times and the speed at which boats can travel make for amusing viewing and a simple google search of ‘what happens when a nuclear explosion occurs underwater?’ reveals 662,000 results (in 0.74 seconds), most of which show where the makers of this movie get their expensive yet still disappointing CGI showcase wrong. I’d also remind them of the electromagnetic pulse but it feels like kicking them when they’re down. Nevermind the movie and its characters are utterly unconcerned with the effects of a forty-metre tsunami less than 25 miles off the coast of Rome will have on the city, or the rest of the Meditteranean as a matter of fact, just as long as the 6th Fleet has only suffered some minor damage, everything is USofA-okay.
Hamfisted, humourless and horribly tone-deaf, this is one of 2017’s biggest disappointments. The blame shouldn’t be placed at the door of O’Brien, Keaton or Taylor Kitsch, who do their best with the clichéd, atrocious dialogue and plot they have to work with, but the only thing this “American Assassin” has surely killed off is the potential for a cinematic franchise.