I would be surprised if American Assassin doesn’t become a moderately successful direct- to-video franchise (with the actors being cashed out for cheaper alternatives, of course), because it is the type of movie that belongs in the world of DTV and has a lot of audacity being released theatrically. If you’ve seen the trailer and have been anticipating a gritty, hard-edged counter-terrorism thriller (like I have), then I’m afraid I have bad news for you.
Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner) plays Mitch, a young man with a troubled past, who proposes to his girlfriend while on a romantic resort getaway in Spain. Their idealistic moment is shattered, however, when terrorists open fire and kill the girlfriend along with dozens of other tourists. The story cuts to “18 months later” and we find Mitch fully immersed in a plot to infiltrate the terrorist cell and slaughter every single terrorist until there aren’t any left. Of course, the CIA has tabs on him and he ends up being recruited to join a black-ops team under the guidance of a ruthless Michael Keaton. The “kill infidels” direction is ditched and suddenly we’re on a larger-than-life race against the clock to stop a nuclear bomb (yep).
The synopsis might look decent on paper, but in reality it’s a hugely underwhelming espionage caper that relies on every cliché in the book. What promises to be a tense cinematic experience takes a fast-tracked nosedive and disintegrates into a poor man’s Bourne. Considering that the film is adapted from a series of popular novels (fourteen to be exact) from author Vince Flynn, I would have expected the studio to have prepared the audience for a much more fanciful adventure if they wanted them to stick around for more.
Director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger) seems so keen to deliver action that he neglects any and all substance along the way. Aside from the confronting opening sequence, the film lacks any form of emotional anchor and offers no dramatic filler to bind the story together. And so we’re left with a bunch of simplistic characters that just want to kick ass for America, accompanied by a bunch of bloated action sequences that may as well have been collected from Roland Emmerich’s cutting-room floor.
The cast do their best with the material, and there’s no doubt that Michael Keaton had a lot of fun. I would suspect that he seized the opportunity to have a working holiday and let himself off the leash. He’s as over the top and hammy as I’ve seen him in years, and he knows it. Dylan O’Brien has his moments, but is otherwise expendable. And if his turn in the Maze Runner series hasn’t disqualified his calibre as a leading man, then American Assassin sure as hell might.
Body of Lies, The Hurt Locker, Argo… these are good counter-terrorism films. American Assassin is nothing like them. Perhaps if it had been made for the home-entertainment market I might have given it some leniency, because, after all, it’s the type of movie that Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal might have made during their heyday. But as far as having a place amongst contemporary action-driven Hollywood titles, this is a 007 wannabe that almost hits the same heights of stupidity as xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.
With a bit of luck the inevitable sequels will be crappy little Netflix titles that we have no financial investment in watching. In fact, stick Mike ‘The Miz’ Mizanin or Chad Michael Collins in there and we might have ourselves a shonky little franchise with a bucket of popcorn or two.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★☆☆☆☆