Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rage-fueled revenge flicks are typically my jam. There’s nothing better than knowing the simple (but never simplistic) stakes driving the narrative forward: JOHN WICK seeks revenge on the criminals who killed his adorable puppy. The Bride in KILL BILL seeks vengeance upon colleagues who tried to kill her. However, blending this genre with another doesn’t exactly go so smoothly for AMERICAN ASSASSIN. Based on the wildly popular book series by Vince Flynn, this Tom Clancy-inspired espionage thriller about one man’s vengeful quest maddeningly loses its way, only to churn out a mixed bag of knock-off goods. For as much as it is smart, visceral and riveting, it’s also rather befuddling, unsatisfying and vexing.
After a holiday at a resort takes a very unexpected turn, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, whose innate likeability and charisma make him a perfect action hero) is out for payback on the underground terrorist organization that maliciously murdered his fiancé (Charlotte Vega). But his attempts at retribution are thwarted by Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), CIA Director of the counter-terrorism unit. Seems 15 kilos of weapons grade plutonium has been stolen right out from underneath the government and she needs Mitch’s loose-cannon skills to get it back from a rogue mercenary ex-agent they call “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch). She enrolls him at an elite training facility led by legendary CIA agent Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Stan then whips Mitch into shape – or at least good enough – before they must ferret out the menace with double agent Annika (Shiva Negar).
With the exception of its absolutely terrifying, gripping opening sequence, utilizing an Iñárritu-esque long-take, there’s not a whole lot that Cuesta does to make the material particularly cinematic. And that’s okay. We don’t need added artifice to crowd the narrative. We’re keyed into Mitch’s mindset – specifically in the bathroom scene – without getting “arty” about capturing his paranoia. It’s purposely workmanlike in its aesthetic approach. Unlike other spy films, glamour takes a back seat. Sure, Annika dresses up in a hot number once, but the grit augments the atmospheric tension. What really takes center stage are the interpersonal relationship dynamics. Archetypes, in the conceptual sense, develop – fathers, sons, daughters, mentors, friends, enemies – and the filmmakers weave these in without slowing the pace or being particularly obvious about them. There are triangles too! Stan, Mitch and Ghost’s shared commonality is an interesting facet – one that the script by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz toys with if not a little too superficially. That said, the ties that bind these characters’ complexities do need to be strengthened a smidge. They can be thinly drawn.
Nevertheless, the building narrative loses Mitch’s motivation during a few crucial points, making it hard to connect with the character’s inner drive. Why does Mitch even care about this secondary mission versus the crusade to avenge his fiancé? His transformation from a selfish mission to a selfless one is clunky, which is frustrating because you can see the building blocks are there. I could’ve also done without Stan’s old-school condescension (which reads mostly as sexist) towards Irene. Given their relationship set-up (father-figure/ surrogate daughter), shouldn’t he be proud of her accomplishments, not passively aggressive taking swipes at her? The believability factor of the government essentially recruiting a novice, albeit a skilled one, could be easily hand-waved if other elements weren’t so ludicrous. At one point, Mitch doesn’t trust Annika, until moments later (and out of script contrivance) he conveniently trusts her again. There’s a brutal torture scene that hangs in the air longer than feasibly necessary. Plus, the climax is a predictable snooze – one where you almost expect a TNT logo to pop up on the bottom right hand corner.
As an origin story setting up a potential franchise, this first chapter is sort of a weak jump off point. But from what audiences see here, you’ll be hard-pressed to say “no” to more Mitch Rapp chronicles.
AMERICAN ASSASSIN opens on September 15.