Neither great nor bad, but somewhere closer to okay, American Assassin’s strength lies in its appreciation of what an older generation has to offer a younger one, even if the arena in which they are operating is the CIA and their jobs are hunting down and killing bad guys.
The film opens with a young couple on a beach vacation getting engaged. It’s a sweet moment shattered by what appears to be a random act of terrorism in which a group of gunmen mow down nearly every person on the beach, leaving a great many dead, including the young woman. The boyfriend, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien from the Maze Runner films as well as “Teen Wolf”), makes it his duty to learn the ways of a modern warrior, infiltrate whatever group killed his girlfriend, and wipe them out.
So Mitch grows a beard of sorrow and trains like a fiend, learning martial arts, weapons, investigative skills, and computer hacking. And he nearly takes out his target in the process. But his trolling of terrorist websites gets him marked by the CIA, in particular Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who figures out what he’s doing and is so impressed with his raw talent that she recruits him into the agency. Mitch eventually agrees, but he must first make it through a type of bootcamp run by a Cold Warrior named Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, just as ornery as he was in Spider-Man: Homecoming), where he must unlearn a few things, including eliminating the personal motivations from his agenda.
Not surprisingly, this is the toughest part of his job. Eventually he is put into the field with Hurley to search for uranium missing from Russia that is being weaponized and made into a bomb by a terrorist named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), a former Hurley-trained agent who has switched sides for reasons that we don’t find out until the end (and they really don’t matter).
The rapport between Keaton and O’Brien is actually pretty great, and as Mitch begins to actually listen to Hurley’s advice and training, he becomes a more efficient agent. There are your requisite foot chases, car chases (even a boat chase), explosions, and an especially ferocious Turkish agent named Annika (Shiva Negar) helping them out, and the result is a decent action adventure film that’s just not quite a Jason Bourne-level thrill ride. Keaton keeps things light and snappy, and he’s quickly becoming an actor that I can’t wait to see in whatever he’s up to.
Director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E., Kill the Messenger, and many episodes of “Homeland”) makes certain things are always moving forward, and while the specifics of the players and situations are easy to lose track of, the main objectives are made fairly clear. There are a couple of surprises and far more not-so surprises in terms of double crosses and other unnecessary plot twists. There’s also certainly room (or at least the possibility) to turn the adventures of Rapp and Hurley into a second-tier franchise, and I can imagine now that the origin story is out of the way, a second installment might be more lively and interesting.
As fun as Keaton makes the film, O’Brien is almost lost in his gloomy, super-serious performance. We don’t need the visual cues that Mitch is sad; he never lets up about his tragedy, and it lowers the energy levels in the room whenever he brings them up. Kitsch is an interesting choice for a bad guy, but he pulls it off by pulling the pins off of his crazy grenades at just the right intervals. American Assassin doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but thanks to a bit of fortunate chemistry, it does breathe some much-appreciated life into the spy thriller game.