American Assassin opens strong, with civilian Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) witnessing the murder of his girlfriend during a brutal terrorist attack. It’s a heart-pounding sequence, turning a paradisiacal beach vacation into a chaotic bloodbath in the span of seconds.
Cut to eighteen months later, when Rapp has become obsessed with finding and killing the man who ordered the attack. After training himself in firearms and martial arts, Rapp poses as a recruit for the group responsible for his girlfriend’s death, and is successfully invited to their Libyan outpost. Before he can exact his revenge, a team of black-ops soldiers storms the compound, kills the terrorists, and captures Rapp. Back in the states and in C.I.A. custody, he’s given a choice: rot in jail or come work for the government. Rapp chooses the latter option, and soon finds himself on the doorstep of ex-Navy SEAL and current killing machine-trainer Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton).
The training sequences are the movie’s strongest, featuring Keaton at his most sadistic; his character is like J.K. Simmons’s teacher in Whiplash on steroids. I can’t speak to the realism of these scenes, but the challenges assigned to Rapp and his peers are creative and fun to watch. Take, for example, a VR simulation where the recruits must move through a digitally rendered crowd and shoot their assigned targets. The penalty for missing a target or hitting a bystander: a brutal electric shock. These scenes have enough spark and visual flair to set them apart from other movies of the action-espionage genre.
When Mitch inevitably graduates from the program and takes on real missions, the movie loses some steam. This second part of the plot, focusing on Hurley’s team trying to get a nuclear weapon out of the hands of a madman, is competently executed, but it’s also completely standard. From the evil mercenary with a mysterious past, to the beautiful foreign agent Rapp is paired with, to the scenic globetrotting, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen in other spy-thrillers. That being said, the movie’s workmanlike pacing and clean, coherent action sequences keep things chugging along, and the climax provides an exciting-if-familiar race against the clock – as well as some impressive, well-placed special effects.
The acting is decent, if sometimes unmemorable. O’Brien is solid in the lead, selling us on Rapp’s transformation from all-American heartthrob, to vigilante, to trained killer by never forcing the transitions, and Taylor Kitsch does well in what amounts to a fairly stock bad-guy role. But it’s Keaton who steals the show as Rapp’s cold, tough-as-nails mentor, whose cruel tactics are always in the service of teaching his students critical lessons.
American Assassin hardly wowed me, but it was fine (and in some instances, above average) for what it was. I judge the success of a movie like this by whether or not I’d come back for a sequel, and in this case I probably would.