Silly, hyper-violent, and gleefully hateful, racist, and reactionary, American Assassin proves in every wrongheaded way possible that the Trump presidency is about to usher in a new era of godawful action movies that will probably be looked back upon fondly because of how goofy and politically ignorant they were. Some of those movies were fun in terms of their awfulness, but the latest film from Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger, L.I.E.) clearly wants to take its sub-Jack Reacher source material with po-faced seriousness because AMERICA IS NOTHING TO JOKE ABOUT. Aimed squarely at the mouth breathing crowd that thought American Sniper was too heady, balanced, and left-leaning for their tastes, American Assassin is the kind of film that if someone tells you they loved it, you should run as far and fast away from them as humanly possible.
Spun off from late novelist Vince Flynn’s bestselling series of novels, American Assassin introduces the writer’s “greatest” creation, Mitch Rapp, played by a now almost unrecognizable Dylan O’Brien. In a brutally violent and downright offensive opening sequence gorier than the entirety of Dunkirk, Mitch watches his beloved fiancée get gunned down by terrorists invading their vacation resort. They had only been engaged for minutes! It’s enough to instantly and without hesitation turn Mitch into a Paul Kersey styled vigilante intent on infiltrating those gad-danged Jihadis and getting close to the man responsible for his wife’s death. Before he can complete his suicidal Death Wish, Mitch is plucked out of harm’s way by a CIA director (Sanaa Lathan) and placed into a elite tactical squadron of trained killers, run by Michael Keaton’s gruff instructor and pointman, Stan Hurley.
Stan thinks Mitch is a loose cannon, and he’s not wrong. I wouldn’t send Mitch’s damaged, psychotic mind to take out a paper target with a slingshot, let alone with infiltrating sleeper cells and taking out terrorist leaders. Ever time a rival trainee (a criminally wasted Scott Adkins) looks at Mitch with contempt and disdain, I feel every ounce of that pain. The whole plot revolves around Mitch learning to not take his killing so personally while Keaton (who tries very, very hard to make something watchable out of a role this clichéd) and Lathan are reduced to bickering throughout the whole film that Mitch is or isn’t ready for duty.
Thanks to an apparent lack of options or a really crappy recruitment program, Mitch gets assigned to work alongside Stan and an Iranian liaison (Shiva Negar) to track down a load of weapons grade plutonium that’s been boosted by a former program trainee gone rogue known only as The Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, who’s fine in a film that finds O’Brien deliberately doing a Kitsch impression). The Ghost openly courts bad guy bidders by saying they can “kill as many Jews as they want,” but his endgame like Mitch’s ultimate reason for joining the CIA will turn out to be far more personal.
Let’s set aside for a moment how terrible Mitch is at his job, and how his entire cover can be blown every step of the way if any of the villains performed a single Google search of his name. Let’s forget that The Ghost’s plan is a horribly realized one that could also be ripped to shreds if anyone put a moment’s thought into trying to stop him. Let’s forget Keaton’s literal scenery chewing performance and O’Brien’s thorough inability to anchor a film. Let’s ignore the hokey “virtual reality” training sessions faced by Stan’s recruits that could (A) never exist and (B) make this look even more insidiously like a headshot obsessed video game than it already is. Let’s even ignore the fact that this film is openly embracing its own racist tendencies and running with them as far as it can. Let’s just focus on the fact that something this idiotic and wrong still manages to be no fun whatsoever.
American Assassin has the set-up not of a modern day Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves vehicle, but the set-up of a 1980s flick that should be starring Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson, only O’Brien doesn’t have a sleazy genre maven like Michael Winner or Joseph Zito to back up the young man’s bid to be the next big action superstar. Heck, he doesn’t even have Peter Berg or Michael Bay, two right leaning filmmakers well versed in action who also have some semblance of self-awareness and humour. He has Cuesta, a once promising filmmaker fallen on hard times to a point where I can’t tell if the director cares about his material or if he secretly loathes it. Every gory nobody who gets their skull caved in, limbs blown off, and bones shattered gets their misfortunes captured in ugly, rote fashion, never caring about what’s happening so long as it’s as extreme as possible. This certainly makes American Assassin bloody, but good luck making anyone other than people with Reinfeld Syndrome to care about any of this.
As a hero, Mitch is unlikable, unsympathetic, and unrelatable. He’s also a complete idiot, although the film won’t come out and say that. Stan is such a living and breathing cliché that nothing he says is funny, sage, or even interesting. I almost wanted to root for The Ghost, but even he’s too thinly realized to elicit much of a response. American Assassin is packed with action, but none of it is good and all of it is meaningless because Cuesta and his team of four screenwriters (including once reliable scribes and filmmakers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, both of whom have seemingly forgot how to make good movies in recent years) never create a based for their corny carnage to stand on. Even if American Assassin were so awful it was funny, that would be worthy of merit. Instead, it’s just an awful, unwatchable mess.
Is American Assassin essential viewing?
There’s no reason whatsoever to devote any of your time to American Assassin, let alone your money. Stay far, far away.
American Assassin opens at Cineplex locations across Canada on Friday, September 15, 2017. Check their website for more details.