There are clear franchise aspirations to be found within “American Assassin,” especially since it’s based on the popular Mitch Rapp series of books from the late author Vince Flynn. Sadly, there’s an utter lack of quality to be found. As dumb an action flick as we’ve had in years, this is among the worst offerings of 2017 so far. It’s embarrassingly bad.
“American Assassin” desperately wants you to root for Rapp as the next great action hero. Unfortunately, the character is horrible and the morality at play is atrocious as well. Functioning mainly as red meat for conservatives, it’s almost a Fox News fever dream at times. In the view of this movie, the Iran Treaty will just lead to increased terrorism, with only a single white male able to stop it. That doesn’t even begin to get into the gender politics at play. Women exist here to either have large breasts, be shot to death or shot to death even more gruesomely while having large breasts. It’s a brutal experience at times.
A brief prologue sets up just who our protagonist is and why he’s out for blood. Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is on an exotic vacation with his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega), ready to pop the question. No sooner does she say yes and he leaves her on the beach to get drinks, then terrorists attack. In the chaos, Mitch is wounded, while Katrina is repeatedly shot. Having seen the love of his life brutally murdered, he goes immediately undercover to destroy a terror cell. Never mind what qualifications he has. He’s angry! That must be enough.
Soon, the CIA notices him and bursts in just as he’s about to meet the head of a cell, ruining over a year of revenge planning. Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) sees something in Mitch and wants him on their side. A bit of convincing later and he’s off to train with Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a legend in counterterrorism. Stan plays by the rules, so of course he and Mitch butt heads. Then, a mission requires them to suit up.
Out in the field, Rapp proves just as reckless and unreliable, enraging Stan. Partnered with another agent (Shiva Negar), they’re on the hunt for a nuke being sold off. Whenever they get a lead though, the mysterious mercenary Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) arrives on the scene and causes havoc. No points for guessing how much he has to do with the plot. Insert generic action scenes and worries of double-crossing here.
In a film full of plot holes and stupidity, almost the entire third act consists of Rapp catching up to the bad guy despite having no way of having any clue where he might be. Literally, it happens multiple times. Throw in the cliche of a would be boat escape and not one bit of this is original in any way.
Acting is an afterthought here in “American Assassin”. Michael Keaton collects a paycheck here while playing your garden variety drill sergeant/mentor role. There’s admittedly one enjoyable insane scene featuring Keaton being tortured and his response to it, but that’s just the veteran actor having fun with nonsense. Between this and his involvement in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Keaton at least is making some presumably good scratch. Dylan O’Brien is incredibly forgettable, bringing no personality to the role. Whereas Keaton chews some scenery and has fun, O’Brien slogs through, hoping to have a big screen franchise to call his own.
Taylor Kitsch provides an anonymous villain, while fellow supporting players Sanaa Lathan and Shiva Negar fare no better. At least they’re treated in a less shoddy manner than Charlotte Vega. Seen only in the prologue, the camera showcases her chest, before offing her in a particularly violent manner. The cast also includes Scott Adkins, among others, but no one will be bragging about this on their resumes.
Director Michael Cuesta has done a workmanlike job his whole career, so it’s surprising how ineffective he is here. Downright shocking, however, is that the award winning duo of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick are two of the credited writers. Then again, co-writers Michael Finch and Stephen Schiff have less than stellar resumes. Not only is it a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, the broth was rather spoiled, to begin with. Cuesta, Finch, Herskovitz, Schiff, and Zwick may have just spat out the worst script of the year. Everyone in the film is terrible at their jobs. No care is given to having logic reside in this universe. It’s embarrassing. Composer Steven Price probably escapes closest to unscathed, but only due to how mediocre his score is.
Such little care is paid to things in “American Assassin,” when a blood splatter hits the camera, a trace of it remains as the scene continues, beyond where it would make any semblance of sense. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak is cringing somewhere. There’s also shoddy special effects, poor pacing, and an atrocious ending. Literally, nothing seems to work here.
It would be hard to make a worse movie than “American Assassin” without things devolving into outright parody. In that regard, this is something of an achievement. This isn’t being released into theaters this week, it’s escaping. Avoid this one at all costs. The only thing truly being assassinated here is your intelligence.
“American Assassin” is distributed by CBS Films / Lionsgate and opens in theaters on September 15.