What's On

American Assassin

Sarah Ward

A Bond and Bourne wannabe that’s content with being generic.
American Assassin

Never quite the successful big screen lead, now playing the villain, Taylor Kitsch (TV’s True Detective) is the best thing about American Assassin. In an action-thriller content with being generic, the actor stands out — not because he has found a role better suited to his charms than Battleship, or a feature better marketed than John Carter, but because it's easy to imagine him playing the hero instead. The fact that Ghost, his former navy sailor turned secret CIA operative turned plutonium-dealing traitor, was once in the same shoes as Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien, Teen Wolf), the film’s protagonist and the new recruit trying to bring him down, isn't handled subtly. In fact, the movie couldn’t make the point more apparent, particularly when the latter’s forced enlistment is tied to a stint of revenge-fuelled pretend radicalisation. Still, in an effort short of them, it remains American Assassin’s strongest element.

If there’s a message at the centre of the feature, it’s that right and wrong might be clearly defined, but sometimes a person's individual circumstances and traumas make that line hard to distinguish. While there’s no doubting which opposing side Ghost and Rapp each now sit on, there’s also no mistaking that they could be in each other’s place. Of course, the fascination evoked by Kitsch’s flipside-of-the-same-coin bad guy and the different outcomes of American involvement in the war on terror he represents are merely relative. Made plain, they improve this specific feature slightly, though they’re hardly explored in the depth required, and also prove a standard-issue inclusion in US-versus-extremist movie plots. 

Or, to put it another way: they're the only parts of American Assassin that even feign to do something interesting with the espionage and counter-terrorist formula, and even then, they’re following in well-worn footsteps and only glancing the surface. Obviously conceived as a franchise-starter of its own, with 15 more books written about the same lead character, sticking with a template — from the text and from its genre, laying the groundwork for similar generic missions to come — remains the main aim for director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger) and screenwriters Stephen Schiff (The Americans), Michael Finch (Interrogation), Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) as they adapt Vince Flynn’s novel of the same name. The end result is a Bond and Bourne wannabe that’s routine from start to finish, and comes complete with scenes that could’ve been lifted from either series.

Cue 111 minutes dedicated to introducing Rapp as action’s potential next big spy, in what amounts to an origin tale. When we first meet him, he’s a college student splashing around with the woman (Charlotte Vega, The Refugees) he’s asking to be his wife, then watching on as she’s gunned down by terrorists moments after they become engaged. 18 months later, he’s bearded, communicating with the people responsible and travelling to their clandestine base. When his activities attract at the attention of CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, Now You See Me 2), Rapp is offered the opportunity to become a black ops agent under Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, Spider-Man: Homecoming), then hopping all over the globe to stop Ghost, war in the Middle East and a nuclear attack. 

American Assassin’s lack of surprises, even in the one area that flirts with something more, proves indicative of a film happy to go through the motions. Just as much of its content is ripped from other, better efforts — both in the feature’s narrative arcs and its individual sequences — much of the dialogue has the same been-there, heard-that air. Further, Cuesta’s handling of action is choppy and chaotic, ostensibly aiming to distract rather than immerse, and mistaking amped-up macho-driven violence for intrigue. And while Kitsch’s casting opposite O’Brien is a rare highlight, that doesn’t equate to memorable performances, or anything resembling an engaging viewing experience.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

American Assassin
Director: Michael Cuesta     
USA, 2017, 111 mins

Release date: September 14
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: MA

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay