Arts movie review

Mitch Rapp is no James Bond, but he’s entertaining enough

‘American Assassin’ graced theaters this past weekend as another action thriller


American Assassin

Directed by Michael Cuesta

Based on Vince Flynn’s novel American Assassin

Screenplay written by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz

Starring Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar and Taylor Kitsch

Rated R, now playing

The action tropes are exciting. The storyline is cohesive. The explosions are fun. All the markings of a solid film are here. I wanted to like this film, but I didn’t, and the reason is subtle: there is a fine line in conventional movies between fun and dull, and American Assassin leaned too far towards the latter. Perhaps the tipping point was character writing: the cast is fun, but they are ultimately forgettable.

Amplify the rebellious protagonist trope, and you get Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), a rabid, monster rebel who wants to annihilate terrorists. After witnessing his fiancée being murdered, he goes after terrorists, only to be caught by the CIA and forced to join them. The rest of the film involves Mitch training under Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) and then going off on a mission to stop the explosion of an illegal nuclear bomb.

The film opens to the obligatory sad backstory: when terrorists shoot down people on a beach, Mitch is unable to save his fiancée. Seriously, characters would be well-advised to never marry the protagonist or they will die. I repeat to them: you will die. You will be forgotten except in the constant reminder of old hacked video tapes. You will haunt your protagonist because emotions cause irrationality. You will never be seen again (and if you are, you are only there for plot convenience). So I repeat, don’t marry the protagonist in action thrillers. It is a fatal mistake.

We have Michael Keaton playing the brutal Hurley, Whiplash’s Fletcher-incarnate and instructor of fighting. Hurley believes in bettering students through his cut-throat instruction program, and its effectiveness is no surprise. Keaton doesn’t have J.K. Simmons’s charisma, but Hurley is one of the better characters here. On the CIA side, the American M is Deputy Directory Irene Kennedy who wholeheartedly believes in Mitch’s value, contrary to M’s critical view of James Bond.

As Irene often repeats, Mitch is gifted in everything and possesses great potential. When Mitch is unhinged, his fists fly at his enemies; all he needs is as much destruction and pain to his enemies as he can muster. Mitch possesses a one-track mind that the film rewards him for. His audacity saves people, but the job description gets an equal number of colleagues killed. Mitch lacks Bond’s class — “Rapp, Mitch Rapp” doesn’t roll off the tongue — but he certainly makes up for it in kill count and his entertainment factor.

The bloodthirsty would be satisfied with the brutal torture scenes of nails yanked from fingers and the sheer death toll this film has caused. I do not mind the lack of genuine emotion (except for Mitch’s fiancée’s plot-device-death), which is fine for a film such as this, but we are left with a conventional thriller that doesn’t thrill me, because when everyone of relevance except our protagonist dies, why would I care? Perhaps it was because the film took few risks in plotting.

The nuance of terrorism might not be what you are seeking in a CIA thriller. Brutal, action-packed adventure awaits you. It’s a glorious sight when the bullets fly and buildings explode, when people die and morals corrode. The tropes have been beaten to death, but it’s alright. I do love the ending though, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the genre as Mitch goes after yet another terrorist. The CIA just cannot control him. Mitch is unpredictable, says Hurley. Unfortunately, this film isn’t.