American Assassin

American Assassin (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Action-thriller “American Assassin” is for the modern American audience: it moves swiftly, action sequences are violent and at times beautifully choreographed, and the screenplay commands a level of intrigue when it comes to the shadowy world of spies and espionage. But what makes it stand out among its contemporaries is a lack of handholding when it comes to the execution of the plot. We simply watch the pieces move across the board as the race to stop a nuclear bomb from being detonated unfolds.

The casting for the lead role is inspired and surprising. Dylan O’Brien does not have the physicality of a typical action star nor does he have a face that screams “Movie Star.” Even though O’Brien looks fit, there are many instances in which his character, Mitch Rapp, whose fiancée was murdered in a terrorist attack, appears as though he would be unable to handle his own against much taller, wider, seemingly stronger enemies. And so there is almost always tension before and during hand-to-hand combat.

The contrast proves refreshing and interesting. It highlights the fact that the character is driven by so much anger and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance that threat of bruises and broken bones would not stop him from accomplishing a mission. The character is fascinating because he likens that of a rabid dog but one that must be controlled by his superiors or risk years of surveillance and undercover work among terrorist groups.

One portion of the film that could have been explored further is the training under a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Keaton, as expected, is able to hit different, sometimes unexpected, notes within a stock character who trains promising young talents. These training sessions not only provide curious details a potential agent might undergo before being deemed ready for the field but they also underline our protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. We wonder about his weaknesses, specifically, and how it could be exploited later on—more importantly, at what cost.

I admired that an atmosphere is created in that action sequences are not all that important—and yet when it does present these adrenaline-fueled scenes, it excels. The screenplay creates a consistently high level of urgency and so we care about what would happen not only to the characters but whose hands the rogue nuclear weapon might end up. Because director Michael Cuesta has a habit of playing it small, when he changes his approach, viewers are rendered off-balanced in the best way possible.

“American Assassin,” based on the novel by Vince Flynn, has potential to become a profitable film series because a few elements are present that made the “Bourne” pictures highly watchable. The aggressive CIA operative has more layers to him than anger, as O’Brien’s solid performance suggests—especially during scenes between Rapp and Hurley. Here’s to hoping that if there is a next installment, the material expands the picture’s universe, makes its style more specific, and retains the ability to surprise.

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