The 9 things you should know about ‘AMERICAN ASSASSIN’

Dylan O’Brien in AMERICAN ASSASSIN. Courtesy of CBS Films and Lionsgate.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Revenge is a dish best served cold…and with a side of rage for the hero at the heart of AMERICAN ASSASSIN. The hugely popular “Mitch Rapp” book series by Vince Flynn has been adapted into a gripping, cinematic feature by director Michael Cuesta (KILL THE MESSENGER). In the action-packed thriller, Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) goes on a vengeful quest to avenge the death of his fiancé. He’s recruited by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) and trained by legendary CIA agent Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). There Rapp’s innate skillset is honed and utilized to take down a rogue mercenary ex-agent, “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), who has stolen 15 kilos of weapons grade plutonium.

At the film’s press conference in Los Angeles last month, we learned a handful of fun facts about how the pages of the book were translated into silver screen drama.

It took 11 years to make it to the big screen, in which time author Vince Flynn passed away. Though Flynn passed away during the making of this adaptation of his novel, he did very much play a big role in collaborating with the filmmakers to get details just right. Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura said, “Nick [Wechsler] and I were determined because we loved the material and became friendly with Vince, who was very much a part of this process. We would run by almost all of our big decisions with Vince to make sure if we were deviating from the book, why we were deviating.”

The first scene of the film was the last to be shot. Director Michael Cuesta stated, “Dylan was able to cut his hair and eat pasta and gain some weight back. It was at the end of the schedule in Thailand – in Phuket, which is sort of a fun way to end.”

Michael Keaton was concerned about how it “leaned” into the politics of terrorism. He said, “I was a little nervous about how it leaned, frankly. I’m not one thing or another. In terms of the terrorism issue, I would call myself a hard-liner. So I was okay with what the goal was in the books and the movie. That said, Dylan and I, one of our main concerns when we read the script was that it wasn’t simplistic black and white. You didn’t go down the traditional path. To Michael and Stephen’s credit, they not only took our notes – they were a step ahead of us. He created nuance. They did a good job of making it more complicated, more interesting and not as cliché.”

The virtual reality training exercise is rooted in reality. Producer Nick Wechsler explained, “The augmented virtual reality is used in training. We added the element of electric shock and using this as a way to f*ck with [Mitch Rapp’s] head and maybe trying to break him. That’s us putting our heads together to do something cool.”

Taylor Kitsch’s first day of shooting was the torture scene. Of all the entry points to come in on, the scene where Ghost brutalizes Stan Hurley is a queasy one. Kitsch’s attitude of the experience was, “He may as well just come in swinging.” No stunts ever became too close for comfort though. “Never. It’s a heighten reality, but to Ghost, it’s a matter of fact especially with everything he’s been through with the mentor/ father-figure [relationship] to where he is now.”

Michael Keaton in AMERICAN ASSASSIN. Courtesy of CBS Films and Lionsgate.

Dylan O’Brien learned Arabic for the role. He humbly acquiesced, “Don’t be too amazed by it. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do for a movie. Going into it, you always think you’ll be spending months on it. We were in pre-production at one point and I was like, ‘Uh. When am I meeting with the dialect coach? When am I doing the dialect session?’ It was challenging to get down last minute. Even though with the character he isn’t fluent in Arabic, the idea that we sculpted into the film is that we thought it would be a cooler thing that he taught this to himself as part of his mission. I didn’t have to be perfect with it, but I still wanted to be pretty damn good with it. I wanted it to be viable that this guy was being trusted by these people. I worked with several coaches and always practiced when I could. I had them record on my phone so I could have it in my ear.”

Sanaa Lathan’s character is in all sixteen books – but she’s white. Lathan’s tough-as-nails character provides a realistic balance to the aggressive pursuit of Ghost. Irene and father-figure-turned-colleague Hurley engage in a few combative conversations. She says of their characters, “I loved the complexity of their relationship. This is the kind of think the producers and Michael Cuesta brought to the script – that layering. She was two-dimensional in the first script and there was a deepening of her arc. She is major. I love the fact that they did non-traditional casting. Being a black actress in this business for twenty years, it’s kind of a crusade of mine to see film start to reflect the world that we live in.”

Shiva Negar found her role empowering. She elucidated, “There’s a rollercoaster to her. There’s a lot of layers to her. She goes on the crazy ride. I love her strength and the fact that she is in a field that’s mostly dominated by men. She’s right there getting down and dirty with them, but at the same time, there’s a mystery to her. With Mitch, they sort of have a similar path and she understands him. She’s smart and knows when to use what card to get her way. There’s something very empowering about that.”

Michael Keaton would love it if this spawns a franchise. When asked if he signed on thinking about the financial windfall a potential franchise could bring, the affable actor said, “Do you mean, like in cartoons, did I get those dollar signs in my eyes? [pause] Kinda.”

AMERICAN ASSASSIN opens on September 15.

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