American Assassin doesn’t rewrite the book as far as action thrillers go, but in this first of a hoped-for many installments it meets the test of what audiences expect from this genre — and does it with dynamite edge-of-your-seat style excitement and a very game cast.
The first screen adaptation of one of the late Vince Flynn’s novels focusing on counterterrorism operator Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) introduces us to this young man whose life is turned upside down just moments after proposing to his fiancée (Charlotte Vega) on the beach at a luxury resort. As he goes off to get drinks, terrorists swoop in and kill many tourists, including his girlfriend. Mitch becomes determined to track down those who did it, and that requires putting himself through a life-changing regimen that takes him right into the heart of the offending Libyan terrorist operation.
Now he has caught the eye of the CIA and a key operative (Sanaa Lathan) who sees he has the stuff to be a valuable recruit for much more complicated missions. Under the tutelage of a relentless and uber-demanding CIA trainer (Michael Keaton), he turns into a killing machine, second to none. This all comes in handy as he is sent on the trail of 15 kilos of stolen plutonium that has gone missing from Russia. In a sequence of events where you can forget about catching your breath, he infiltrates a group of mercenaries, arms dealers and, most significantly, an American turncoat named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) who was once an agent himself and now is colluding in an effort to set off a new world war.
As I say in my video review (click on the link above to watch), it is high-stakes cat-and-mouse stuff, even if not wildly original. But in the hands of director Michael Cuesta, working from a screenplay by Stephen Schiff and Michael Finch and Ed Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, it is very effective, and this thing just moves at a pace that doesn’t seem to let up. Cuesta is known for his work on Showtime’s Homeland, and you can see that influence here. But he also directed a couple of smaller movies I admired including Kill the Messenger, in which Jeremy Renner played a journalist on the front burner, and L.I.E., in which Brian Cox was superb. Here he is dealing with much more pulpy and commercial popcorn fare but gives it a sense of authenticity and realism between all the violent — and it is violent — mayhem.
O’Brien of The Maze Runner and TV’s Teen Wolf exhibits the acting instincts of the best action stars, but the hook is this guy is much younger than all of them and could be in for the long haul in this genre, especially if this film spawns the desired sequels. Lathan is excellent, as is Kitsch, who avoids stereotyping his rogue ex-agent. But as you might expect it is Keaton who takes this all to a higher level with an all-in turn that lets it rip. He’s terrific as usual, with such swaggering intensity at times I thought he might be morphing into a version of Beetlejuice. Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler produced the film, a joint effort between Lionsgate and CBS Films, with the latter releasing wide on Friday.
Do you plan to see American Assassin? Let us know what you think.