The globetrotting cat-and-mouse spy thriller, “American Assassin,” is nothing you haven’t seen before. In adapting the Vince Flynn novel, director Michael Cuesta comes up with an inferior Bourne/Bond flick. Which is disappointing, considering Cuesta did his spy-game thing so much better when he directed a handful of early episodes of Showtime’s “Homeland,” including the pilot. And so, “American Assassin” lands smack in Cuesta’s wheelhouse, where he tackles familiar themes of terrorism, hatred, sacrifice and revenge.
As presented in the movie, which borrows bits and pieces from 2003’s Al Pacino-Colin Farrell starrer, “The Recruit,” the material is timely; a mass shooting at a vacation resort sets the events in motion, but the rest of plot is picked over. Dylan O’Brien (“The Maze Runner”) switches from a teen action hero to a grown-up one. He’s CIA black ops recruit Mitch Rapp, an Ivy League educated, volatile vigilante with a tragic past. He teams up with ex-Navy Seal Stan Hurley, an irascible Cold War “warrior” (Michael Keaton), to neutralize a “Russian plutonium situation.”
Taylor Kitsch (“Lone Survivor,” TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) stands as the pair’s adversary, The Ghost, a “Section 8 with an ax to grind.” The rest of the characters populating the by-the-numbers script by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, include the stereotypical “girl” (Iranian beauty Sanaa Lathan), and a no-nonsense CIA head of counter terrorism (Shiva Negar). For reasons the script never fully explains, she is Rapp’s biggest advocate, even when no one else thinks he should be on the team.
What is supposed to be a quick, clean 48-hour mission, goes predictably off the rails. In absence of any originality, the filmmakers pound you with a plethora of highly-edited and super-fast fight sequences, including one featuring ferocious attack dogs. The body count is high. The black Alfa Romeo cars are sleek. The action hops from Spain to Roanoke to Warsaw to London to Romania to Turkey to Italy and so on. The recruits must endure Hurley’s sadistic training program. What plays out on screen is standard-operating espionage thriller. O’Brien, our orphaned hero, is serviceable, dialing up the simmering rage required of the character. He’s got action-hero good looks and there’s some palpable chemistry between Keaton and him that goes a long way. They make the movie watchable. Especially Keaton, an Oscar nominee for “Birdman,” who can conjure up gleeful menace when needed. But the movie lacks subtlety and finesse, with nearly every plot twist tipped off well in advance. Of course, it doesn’t help that Keaton’s character is constantly reminding us that we should “never let it get personal,” and that “nothing is what it seems.” Except it’s the opposite for this movie. It’s exactly what it appears: Middling.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar.
(R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language, and brief nudity.)