After multiple days of letting American Assassin sink in, I have come to a conclusive realization. This is a film that can be interpreted in two different ways: if you are looking for a generic, crowd-pleasing action thriller, than you might enjoy this, but if you are looking for a thought-provoking, character study that delivers on both action and narrative depth, than you might be greatly disappointed.
American Assassin, directed by Michael Cuesta, tells the story of a young man that experiences a tragedy of the worst kind when his girlfriend is killed on a beach by a group of terrorists. Over the next 18 months, the young man, Mitch Rapp, studies and trains on his own to become an assassin and take down terrorists and avenge the death of his loved one, which leads him into being recruited by the CIA in order to put those skills to use.
Let’s start with the positives. The biggest positive in the entire film is the acting of the lead characters, particularly Dylan O’Brien. The first act was powerfully and emotionally gripping, which is mostly due in part to O’Brien. He does such a wonderful job of taking a character and making him his own and does it with splendor. We, as an audience, become emotionally invested in his character, Mitch Rapp, right from the start. O’Brien also excels at the action scenes. He brings strong physicality to the role and pulls off the action scenes in believable and thrilling satisfaction.
Michael Keaton’s performance is potentially one of his best and most fun to watch in quite a while. In fact, the scenes he shares with O’Brien are quite possibly some of the best in the entire film. Their chemistry was on-point and gave the movie life, especially when the narrative begins to fumble and then completely fall apart after the opening act.
There is no way around it. The plot after the first act is by far the biggest weakness in the entire film. The direction the story takes is almost counter-intuitive to how the story began and abandons all of what makes the opening so riveting. The believability in O’Brien’s character that we buy into in the early stages of the film is suddenly questioned by strange choices in the script that takes the movie into a less-realistic style.
Basically, the parts that work for me in the movie are under-utilized and instead replaced by a generic, government subplot that takes the movie into clichéd territory. I’m not one to instantly proclaim studio interference, but I get the feeling that something of the sort happens with the change in direction of the story that appears to make the film more marketed towards an audience similar to that of John Wick or The Accountant, but are not of the same quality as them.
I’m torn on how I feel about Taylor Kitsch in this film. On one hand, he is a talented actor and does more with the role than most do with a villainous character with the likes this one. On the other hand, I sympathize with him because he was given weak material to work with. His character has so much potential in the film to be utilized in multiple subplots on a high level (particularly involving O’Brien and Keaton), but is figuratively sacrificed in order to help fulfill the large-scale threat and crowd-pleasing second-half of the film.
All in all, this movie is a bit of a mixed bag. Parts of it really work and engage the viewer on multiple fronts, but other parts are significantly weaker and even diminish part of what makes those successful parts work in the first place. If you are into seeing a decent action thriller and are not too worried about getting a strong, layered story, than this is for you. If you are looking for a film that has a balanced mix of good action, character, story, and depth, than this might not be the one for you.