By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Late author Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp book series serves as the inspiration for what movie producers hope is the first installment of another successful film franchise. Directed by Michael Cuestra (Kill the Messenger), American Assassin offers an origin story for Rapp, a young, skilled, but naive and reckless C.I.A. operative who hopes his work for the agency will help him cope with some ghosts and pain from the past. With intense and thrilling action sequences and great acting from the cast, this first chapter makes for good start to a promising movie franchise, but any further adventures will require some better writing if the producers want to make this movie series really fly.
Twenty three-year-old Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) has had a rather turbulent life and his life is about to get even more harrowing. Having lost his parents to a car accident at the age of thirteen and, more recently, his fiancee to a terrorist attack, Rapp feels like he has nothing left to lose. After attempting to take the law into his own hands, Rapp gets recruited by C.I.A. Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) for training as a black ops recruit. Under the intense and demanding tutelage of Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), Rapp hones his skills, but cannot seem to control the rage which drives him. With much reluctance, Hurley allows Rapp to assist him and his team with the investigation of a series of seemingly random terrorist attacks which might be connected with a former operative known as “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch).
Written by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, Cuestra’s movie is an exciting spy flick with some impressive action sequences and intriguing characters, but it is also a movie that often feels familiar with some espionage cliches. Though the story itself does have some compelling moments, some of the dialogue of the characters comes across as hackneyed. I did enjoy the characters and their development is mostly solid. As I previously noted, the potential is there for some really exciting storytelling, but this would require some improvements in the screenwriting.
The cast delivers solid work with O’Brien, Kitsch, and Keaton rising above some of the silliness of the script. Keaton, obviously, can perform exceptionally in just about any role, so casting him in this movie was a major win for the filmmakers. He brings a powerful and gritty intensity to his role as the no-nonsense Cold War veteran and C.I.A. operative leader Stan Hurley. As “Ghost, ” the oft-kilter, but skilled operative-turned-terrorist, Taylor Kitsch shows some definite range as an actor. Young actor Dylan O’Brien impresses as the pained, but steadfast Mitch Rapp. His boyish looks transforms with the inner-agony and ferocity of his character. The actor also has an undeniable screen presence and charismatic side which makes for an engaging hero.
At the screening I attended for this film, both Dylan O’Brien and Taylor Kitsch appeared to help promote the film. I had a chance to briefly speak with both actors who spoke quite fondly about the film and about working with acclaimed actor Michael Keaton. Kitsch certainly was happy about signing on to the project, as his character was one specially developed for the film. “My character was not derived from any of the books, so creatively, selfishly I got to bring him from the ground up.” O’Brien talked about the physical demands of taking on such a fierce action role. “It is never as intense or grueling as the real guys who do this kind of work. For me as an actor, it was a lengthy training regimen for about six to eight weeks before the movie got started. It involved weight training, mixed martial arts training, Jiu Jitsu and boxing, just to shape how this guy moves, without being too generic. I wanted to really develop speed and physicality to reflect his vicious nature.” As for what both actors really like about the film, Kitsch said, “It is an incredibly personal action movie with the kind of action I have never seen before. The first ten minutes are so visceral, it sticks with you. At least it did for me.” O’Brien added, “I personally connected with this guy suffering a personal tragedy which I thought was very realistic.”
Though, some of the sequences do have a sense of heightened reality, the film’s themes, characters, beats and emotions do remain firmly grounded in reality. The themes of coping with tragedy and the harnessing of anger and despair into something else should resonate well with audiences. The film might suffer a little with some tired tropes, but is nevertheless an engrossing and breathtaking action flick which I would recommend for an afternoon matinee at the cinema. American Assassin may not be a major breakthrough in action movies, but it is a solid beginning for a possibly great new franchise.