Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), our soon-to-be-trained assassin, carefully records every precious second spent at a beach resort with his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega). He swims towards her, exchanges a few words of endearment, then asks for her hand in marriage. She says yes, they kiss, everybody around them claps. This superficial romance is likely intended to make us feel invested in these characters, but it only feels jarring when the resort is attacked shortly after the film begins.
Within the first few minutes of the film, everyone is brutally murdered by a group of terrorists led by Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed), with Mitch narrowly escaping death. And director Michael Cuesta assumes that we can feel that brutality by letting the blood splatter on the lens and having the camera stare directly at all the sprawled bodies.
Loosely adapting Vince Flynn’s novel of the same name, “American Assassin” is driven by the rage — which often translates as extreme chauvinism — of Mitch Rapp, who seeks to avenge his fiancé’s death by singlehandedly gaining the trust of the terrorist group responsible, and killing everyone in it.
Then, a strong-willed CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) and experienced Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) interrupt Mitch’s plans to basically tell him, “Hey, you shouldn’t do that … at least not on your own.” Afterwards, past all of the training sequences and introductions of uninteresting secondary characters, we set out with Mitch’s original plan anyway: to kill everyone.
Stan occasionally has superficial confrontations with Mitch about his inconsolable desire for revenge, but Mitch only ever walks away with a slap on the wrist. Therefore, Mitch never deals with true moral scruple, and with his impeccable accuracy at the gun range, he starts to look like something inhuman — a machine programmed to shoot on sight.
Clearly, a lot of people die in this film. And although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, a lot of lives are just irresponsibly tossed around in “American Assassin.” Violence can be used to entertain us, scare us and, believe it or not, inform us, when it is properly used. Unfortunately, the bloodshed in this film does none of that.
Instead, people are stabbed or shot one after another, simply to move our “patriotic” heroes along. We never feel the gravity of their situation nor can we feel shock or sympathy if one of them is killed. The violence is senseless and unintelligent to the point that would make “Teen Wolf” fans — with O’Brien as a former “Teen Wolf” star to lure that audience — and even Bond fans fall asleep.
Even if Stan’s fingernails are pulled out one by one or a bomb is about to go off, the film inadvertently manages to convince the audience that everything is going to be okay. Halfway through, you’ll probably be reassured that the good guys will win. In other words, “American Assassin” is predictable — even with its twist.
And because of the film’s inability to entertain or inform, it’s unlikely that it will gain any traction in terms of the real events it attempts to portray, such as the 2015 Sousse Attacks mirrored in the opening scene.
Conservative commentator Glenn Beck has acknowledged Flynn’s novels as “conservative porn”, but thinking that “American Assassin” would enlighten or enrage bipartisan groups — at least enough for real conversations — would be giving the film way too much credit.
In other words, “American Assassin” will only satisfy an audience that agrees with the film’s violent ideologies.
No matter how much O’Brien says it responsibly confronts today’s issue of domestic terrorism, “American Assassin” is ultimately a numb action flick. Using the words “fake news” or including homegrown terrorists doesn’t automatically make a film important or relevant — especially if it doesn’t really have anything thought-provoking to say about the themes it attempts to engage in.
At best, “American Assassin” suggests that bad guys can exist anywhere, and the only reasonable solution to this problem is to stick to your guns.