Director: Michael Cuesta
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Scott Adkins, Taylor Kitsch, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Trevor White, Navid Negahban, David Suchet
Runtime: 1 hr 52 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 18 October 2017
Synopsis: AMERICAN ASSASSIN follows the rise of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), a CIA black ops recruit under the instruction of Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). The pair is then enlisted by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) to investigate a wave of apparently random attacks on both military and civilian targets. Together the three discover a pattern in the violence leading them to a joint mission with a lethal Turkish agent (Shiva Negar) to stop a mysterious operative (Taylor Kitsch) intent on starting a World War in the Middle East.
Comparisons with Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher are inevitable, though not necessarily for the worse.
Adapted from the late Vince Flynn’s hugely popular series of novels, ‘American Assassin’ sets up yet another one-man CIA killing machine in the form of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), who is driven – at least at the start – by a deep-seated sense of vengeance more than professionalism and/or plain obedience. In the novel of the same name, it was the Pan Am Lockerbie terrorist attack that shatters him emotionally; in the movie though, it is a fictional (though clearly mirroring the 2015 Sousse attack in Tunisia that left 38 beachgoers dead) attack at a beach resort that claims his fiancé which triggers his transformation from fresh-faced male ingénue to stone-cold killer. Within 18 months, Mitch has taught himself guns and martial arts, learned fluent Arabic, and made contact with the very terrorist cell that was behind the attack.
But before he gets to exact sweet revenge, the CIA interrupts his vendetta by whisking the cell leader Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed) away. The agency’s deputy director of counter-terrorism Irene (Sanaa Lathan) is impressed though and makes him an offer to join an elite black-ops unit called Orion that is headed up by former Navy SEAL and Gulf War fighter Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). And wouldn’t you know it – someone has just stolen weapons-grade plutonium and plans to make a nuclear bomb! It so happens too that the person behind it is one of Stan’s former proteges named Ghost, who bears perhaps an even more deep-seated grudge against Stan and the US Government, and therefore has no qualms to detonate the said bomb on thousands of American citizens.
What follows is a trot across the European continent that sees Mitch team up with a Turkish operative Annika (Shiva Negar) to pursue a trail from Istanbul to Rome which will hopefully lead to Ghost. Along the way, the team of four screenwriters inject some tension between Mitch and Stan by playing the former as a wild card who is first vulnerable to his own emotion (as a result of the anger and trauma from his tragic past) and then prone to disobeying the latter’s orders in the field; though in the case of the latter, these instances are in fact driven not by his own self-interest but an innate doggedness and determination to prevent their trail from going cold. There is also some attempt to throw in modern-day politics into the action – seeing as how the buyers of the nuclear bomb turn out to be a group of Iranian hardliners incensed by their country’s agreement to the 2015 denuclearisation deal – but that in itself never quite develops into anything compelling.
Chiefly therefore, this spy thriller plays as a cat-and-mouse game between Mitch/ Stan on one side and Ghost on the other, complete with a disturbing scene of torture that tries to justify its existence as befitting the enmity between Stan and Ghost. To his credit, director Michael Cuesta makes the most of a predictable script by keeping a brisk pace from start to finish and staging a couple of pretty intense close-quarter fights. He has also assembled a competently engaging lead in O’Brien, channelling both grit and vulnerability in his best ‘Jason Bourne’ impersonation. O’Brien is supported by a very effective Keaton, who despite being the go-to guy of late for playing the wise grizzled veteran, is clever enough to make his cardboard tough-guy character here a little more interesting.
In truth, it is probably not reasonable to expect ‘American Assassin’ to be as stunning as any one of the first three ‘Jason Bourne’ movies, but this is meat-and-potatoes B-grade spy thriller fare that should do well to entertain those looking for a bit of thrill. As the first chapter of a potential Mitch Rapp franchise (there are 16 books in total in Flynn’s series), it is admittedly a little underwhelming, lacking somewhat in wit, character and even plot – at least though that kicker of an ending promises that the sequel might make a sharper ‘kill’.
(As far as spy thrillers go, this is efficient, workman-like fare that won't make 'Jason Bourne' or 'Jack Reacher' lose their job anytime)
Review by Gabriel Chong