American Assassin stars Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner films) as Mitch Rapp, the fictional lead character of the late Vince Flynn’s bestseller novel series. Flynn, who passed away from prostate cancer in 2013 had written thirteen novels for the Mitch Rapp character and it was his wish that they were to be made into films for the big screen. Michael Cuesta’s American Assassin is the first film from the series to be made into a feature film, but the novel is about tenth on the list of books in the timeline of the series. Mitch Rapp has been around since 1999 when Flynn’s first novel, Transfer of Power was released so the road to the big screen has been in the making for a long time.
American Assassin is an origins story that shows just how Mitch Rapp becomes the man he is. After suffering a tragedy on a beach in Ibiza, Spain, Rapp (O’Brien) trains, learns Arabic and delves into radical Islam to exact his revenge on the people responsible for taking what was dearest to him. Under surveillance by the CIA and a recruiter for the CIA, Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), Rapp is approached to join a specific program run by the legend Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). This program takes what experience recruits already have and turn them into even deadlier operatives for the CIA. When spare parts for an atomic bomb are stolen by a man named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) Hurley and his team are activated to stop him.
If you think that this has all been done before, you would be correct. There is not much in American Assassin that has not been done a thousand times before. But since this is based on a book, there is not much choice to follow the book’s material and leave the chips of filmmaking fall where they may. As far as translations from print to screen, American Assassin follows the book fairly closely with obvious omissions to keep the film’s pace and tempo moving. Simply put, the filmmakers have stayed true to the meat of the book, for the most part, and as an origin story for a franchise, American Assassin is fun, intense and very well acted.
Dylan O’Brien who has mostly been a teen heartthrob with his Maze Runner franchise and tv’s popular series Teen Wolf. Even though he is twenty-six, in reality, he still seemed to be cursed with teenage and young adult fare. With American Assassin, O’Brien graduates to adulthood with a very mature and brooding performance as Mitch Rapp. I believed his rage and determination was real. Rapp is a doer, not a person who sits back and waits. He is willing to die to achieve what he wants and this, of course, puts him at odds with Hurley but Hurley still sees potential in Rapp. Michael Keaton, once known for comedic films, once again shows his dark side with a riveting performance.
Sanaa Lathan is fine as Irene Kennedy. Her beautiful looks aside, she is a great actress and does what the role requires, but is mostly relegated to looking at computer and TV screens. Taylor Kitsch is solid as Ghost. Kitsch has been mostly dismissed as an actor since he has made some films that were disasters. But as in the case with season two of True Detective and with American Assassin, Kitsch shows he can dig deep and bring out the bad with conviction. I know, his character in True Detective was not a bad guy, but he had issues that he tried to suppress and it took him to dark places.Shiva Negar plays Annika, a local operative helping Rapp and Hurley and she does well in an important but rather limited role as is David Suchet as CIA director Stansfield.
There are four different screenwriters for American Assassin and usually when it takes that many to complete a script, the film more often than not, ends up a disaster. Not the case in American Assassin. Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz have penned a sharp script that bristles with tension and intrigue. I guess you can have a dozen people working on a script and as long they are the right dozen, you can have a good script. American Assassin has the right four writers for this material. Steven Price has composed another interesting and immensely enjoyable score.
If I had any beefs with American Assassin it would be that the ending, although satisfying, is a bit far-fetched. I guess it fits within the confines of the story but it is a bit too much. I also would have liked to see a bit more of Ghost whose backstory is glossed over, for the most part. He is a formidable villain and Kitsch delivers, but there is not that much for the viewers to go on for his motivation. Director Michael Cuesta has loaded American Assasin with lots of quick-cut action which looks great on screen. Cuesta, who has done mostly directed TV shows, displays a knack for the big screen, as well. He directed the excellent film Kill the Messenger with Jeremy Renner from 2014 and is indeed worth watching, as well.
In a year that has been a bit disappointing with films like Atomic Blonde (not altogether awful, but very routine) and the wretched The Hitman’s Bodyguard, American Assassin is a much-needed boost for the hot days of summer and I think Vince Flynn would be very proud of Hollywood’s treatment of his book. Is there a franchise looming about for Mitch Rapp? Time will tell, but for the entry film, American Assassin is a compelling and fun start.
American Assassin – **** out of 5
American Assassin – Rated R for language, graphic violence, nudity and adult situations
American Assassin – Run Time is 112 minutes
American Assassin is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for times and locations nearest you.