Poor Katrina. The girlfriend and momentary fiancée of our hero Mitch Rapp, she seals her fate, and his, the moment she blondely waves from the beach in a white bikini and reminds him, “don’t be long.” She doesn’t know, but we do as soon as she says it: This girl is going to get murdered. There was a range of movie types American Assassin could have fallen into, but in these opening moments, it makes it abundantly clear: It’s that type of movie.
American Assassin belongs to a thoroughly brain-off spy movie subcategory that lives somewhere south of the Bourne films’ intelligence and somewhere north of A Good Day to Die Hard. It’s bolstered by more Hollywood convention than actual clever spy storytelling, down to its almost Star Wars–esque master-student-rogue pupil dynamic. It gallops along quickly enough to keep us entertained, but not so quickly that we can’t see the seams of its creaky American Hero setup, down to the attractive woman whispering “I know what it’s like to lose someone, too,” during a quiet moment in a far-flung hotel room. (Women in these movies tend to do two things: empathize and die.)
Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is a young man who has lost everything, at least in developed nation privilege terms: His fiancée, the aforementioned Katrina, was murdered by terrorists during a vacation to Ibiza; he lost his parents as a teen in another incident we’re to assume was terror-related. In the years since he’s devoted his life to infiltrating the cell that has brought him so much grief; he’s become fluent in Arabic and studied the Qu’ran, and his efforts have put him on a CIA watch list. He gets all the way to a bunker in Libya before things head south and he’s extracted by U.S. forces in the nick of time. It’s agreed that the kid got himself into a pickle, but counterterrorism director Irene Kennedy (a steely Sanaa Lathan) is impressed by his renegade talent and unorthodox methods and thinks he would make a great avatar for American exceptionalism.
American Assassin is based on a book series by Vince Flynn whose first volume was published in 1999. When I wrote “pre-Homeland counterterrorist narrative vibes” in my notes, I guess I was picking up on that. You might go looking for some nuanced moral territory here, due to the spry clip at which director Michael Cuesta keeps the action (this movie saves its bombast and bludgeoning for the very last minute, more on that later.) It certainly feels like a film that could trip on some interesting question or idea at any moment — not a genius idea, but a solid “hmmm!” idea, for sure. But you’ll enjoy American Assassin far more with your expectations tuned to the network-television setting.
Kennedy sends Rapp to train with Stan Hurley, a black-ops spy whisperer who is ten times more entertaining as played by Michael Keaton than he would be by any other actor. Keaton is the reason the film exists, and he seems to be enjoying playing a leather-tough field expert so much that you want to excuse the film’s other groanier aspects. (In a climactic torture scene, after forcibly and gorily losing a fingernail, he growls through bloody teeth, “I got nine more! I like this!”) The performance feels more of a piece with Keaton’s Batman than any performance of his in the last two decades, and American Assassin is much more fun (and makes much more sense) if you think of it as a superhero movie. Hurley runs what amounts to a Roanoke Fight Club in the Virginia woods, where Rapp and several other fighting machines in training punch each other and mess around with AR gadgets in improbably huge combat-training hangars.
Soon Rapp is out in the field with Hurley, on a mission to track down some stolen plutonium that’s being turned into a bomb by an old disgruntled student of Hurley’s called Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, also enjoying himself). They chase him around a couple glamorously chyroned locations and wind up in Rome, where Ghost has found a physicist and has plans to nuke America. He doesn’t succeed, but the film does go off the deep end in a way I was first pleasantly broadsided by and seconds later left a bad taste in my mouth. American Assassin has the insane temerity to bring a nuclear bomb to a knife fight, and the obliviousness to have its characters actually say the words “looks like we’re going to be all right” as the radiation showers down on its heroes. It’s aggressively, flagrantly not a movie we need right now. Expect at least three more.