by Joe Hammerschmidt
My question for Hollywood: why save your most intellectual/cerebral films for autumn? Appears to me even the action movies, that are meant to be “all-energy, some exposition, no time wasted on building tone or expressing setting” can slow down and absorb its surroundings well. After a summer of toned-down, less-than-adequate popcorn flicks, it comes as a welcome refresher when a bombastic spy thriller actually comes off as smart and sophisticated, while still edge-of-seat gripping. The challenge, therefore, was high for director Michael Cuesta in adapting American Assassin for the screen. Much like, and almost painfully sharing in certain similarities to, the Jason Bourne franchise in its execution, the film still channels its source material with professional eyes locked onto every detail carefully, even if the smaller/looser elements can’t help but fall within the stock character category.
Inspired by a best-selling series of novels from late author Vince Flynn, more or less the new millennium’s equivalent Tom Clancy, Assassin tracks the origins of a reluctant agent in training to play with the good guys. After losing his just-made-official fiancée Katrina (Charlotte Vega) in a dangerous terrorist sniper attack in the middle of a relaxing vacation, Vince Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is a man on the edge, interacting closely with the militia group responsible for his life changing for the worst. To no surprise, the CIA is caught in the middle of these conversations, with new-coming deputy director Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) discovering his potential as a heroic fighter unlocking rather slowly. At points, it’s too slow for the film’s sake.
Recruited formally, Rapp finds himself far out of his element through the watchful hovering of his overbearing handler, Gulf War vet Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Compared to the aimless millennial kid he’s training (a far cry from the experienced soldier Flynn originally wrote about in his first novel), Hurley is less confident of what he’ll have to lose, therefore he consistently compensates by playing too hard for his students, something he allowed to slip past his grasp the moment a former trainee under his watch (Taylor Kitsch), and the film’s pivotal villain, made the cautious mistake of defecting to the opposition.
Through the penmanship of a snappy script by Stephen Schiff (The Americans) who handled the shooting draft, the world Flynn sought to create in his novels is appropriately reshaped not just to match the pacing expectations of a hungry viewing mass, but also allow O’Brien to increase his prospects as a leading man. For any page-to-screen adap, however, much has to be sacrificed as a result of a much younger actor assuming the lead role. While O’Brien maintains the chops to pull off a demanding part, emotionally and physically and does so with a certain honesty, experience would still win out with an older male lead, had time been more precious to link the pieces together more quickly.
Keaton is as much a victim to this supposed problem, in his inability to relate in close proximity to his castmates. As the jaded Hurley, his personality strikes a toxic tone, as he’s just looking for the best out of his pupils, Rapp especially. Yet without necessarily posting the best traits of being a strong baddie with a weighing conscience, similar to what he pulled off earlier this summer during Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s not too long before Hurley sinks into that generic stock character territory we dread not to see. Even with classy moments that solidify his commitment to the part, Keaton’s always gasping for air, it seems. He does come back up, but nonetheless in a rather shallow happenstance.
The remaining supporting cast struggle the worst to show any distinction from one another, try as they might. The arrival of Turkish sidekick Annika (Shiva Negar) fares best as a late addition to Rapp’s list of backpack-worthy issues; fellow hanger-on Victor (Scott Adkins) blends too deep into the foreground; Lathan’s role contributes little, yet still makes a valuable impact towards Rapp’s evolution; and Kitsch, as the actual antagonist, bears the most teeth, but his timing is still no less off-putting. One craves his presence better peppering the first act and giving Rapp a stronger motivation aside from the more popular notion of enacting revenge.
Director Cuesta takes his best crack at bringing Rapp’s well-organized prequel tale to the big screen, but like any action movie that shows a fine gloss proving how brainy it is, how consistent its storytelling can be, it still comes at a price of losing the viewer partway through. Put it simpler, it’s too easy to get wrapped up in moments of action when your brain shuts down. American Assassin still has enough in the tank to fully revive the action genre for this year, proving not to give up hope just yet; still, one cannot get their hopes up entirely. Does it have plenty of epic sequences? Absolutely, with a third-act CGI-heavy climax that actually looks and feels like its own original product. But can the same be said for everything else? Not entirely.
The highest regret is how little Vince Rapp grows as a character, compared to what 16 novels did. Since this is the first film in a potential franchise, looking to catch up with the print series, O’Brien could grow into the part much like the reverse. Keaton could also build his rapport as a nurturing father figure in future installments vs. the shock-and-awe mad genius-type this film represented; again, time will tell. As a standalone film provided no sequel happens, the final effort is enjoyable while maddening in what it holds back on; if it’s guaranteed another chapter, there’s room to make good on promises that otherwise can’t be kept. For now, just keep the expectations low, and prepare for a little fun, served with plenty of awkward. (C+)
American Assassin opens this weekend at most area theaters; rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language, and brief nudity; 112 minutes.