American Assassin is a preposterous, but lean and mean Mitch Rapp thriller adaptation elevated by Michael Keaton's turn as Rapp's grizzled mentor.
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) was a 23-year old graduate school student who had barely gotten engaged to his girlfriend when tragedy struck, shattering his plans for the future and sending Mitch down a darker path in search of vengeance against the terrorists who were responsible for his turn of fate. However, just when Mitch finds himself on the verge of either getting revenge or meeting his own premature end, he finds himself captured by the CIA instead - as it turns out that Mitch has become a person of interest to the agency, in particular the Director of the Counter-terrorism Center, Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan).
In spite of his erratic behavior and lingering trauma, Mitch is eventually approved to become a black ops recruit for the CIA, under the tutelage and leadership of the extremely hard-edged Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). When a potentially deadly situation arises involving plutonium stolen from a Russian facility presents itself, Hurley and his team (including, Mitch and his fellow recruits) are sent out into the field, to work alongside a Turkish agent named Annika (Shiva Negar) and prevent whatever earth-shattering disaster has been set in motion. Complicating matters is the perpetrator behind it all: "Ghost" (Taylor Kitsch), a mysterious figure who has a long and dangerous history with certain key members of the CIA.
American Assassin is based on the second-to-last Mitch Rapp novel (of the same name) that was authored and published by the late Vince Flynn, yet it explores the Rapp character's history - revealing the story behind his first assignment as a covert government operative. Although a number of well-established actors were considered for or linked to the role at some point during the film's development (Chris Hemsworth and Colin Farrell among them), the role of Rapp in American Assassin ultimately went to relative youngster Dylan O'Brien of Teen Wolf TV show and The Maze Runner movie franchise fame. O'Brien does bring some welcome physicality and charisma to the role of Mitch Rapp - a dark and troubled action hero who very much adheres to pulpy action/thriller conventions, but has sharper teeth than some of his peers. As for the actual movie: American Assassin is a preposterous, but lean and mean Mitch Rapp thriller adaptation elevated by Michael Keaton's turn as Rapp's grizzled mentor.
Michael Cuesta was among the directors and executive producers who worked on the first two seasons of the TV show Homeland - and as the helmsman on American Assassin, Cuesta explores the topic of modern terrorism (among other geopolitical issues) through the lens of the action/thriller genre, similar to his efforts on Showtime's hit CIA drama/thriller series. However, where Homeland aims to examine both its social/political subject matter and the lives of its morally-compromised protagonists with a fair amount of depth, American Assassin prioritizes hard-hitting thrills and forward narrative momentum over richer characterization and thematic development. As indicated earlier, the film takes full advantage of its R Rating in this respect - allowing O'Brien's Mitch Rapp and those around him to unleash a bloody fury upon their enemies in a way that other cinematic black ops agents (like Jason Bourne) cannot. American Assassin recycles many a familiar action movie trope, but it delivers when it comes to hard-edged mayhem.
While the Mitch Rapp character benefits in certain respects from having O'Brien play the role, the character himself is very thinly-sketched and is another chip off the block of not-so-talkative killing machines that are motivated by a tragic backstory and not much else. Rapp's teacher and quasi-father figure, Stan Hurley, isn't all that complex or multifaceted either, but Keaton seems to be having fun with the role and brings a nice sense of screen presence to the borderline-unstable lifelong warrior, making his scenes easily the most entertaining (be they dramatic, vicious or funny in nature) in the entire movie. The American Assassin supporting cast is solid enough in its own right (that includes Scott Adkins in a smaller role as black ops agent Viktor), but Sanaa Lathan and Shiva Negar don't get much to do here beyond either delivering exposition and/or keeping the plot flowing along through their actions (even when their motivations are vague, at best). Taylor Kitsch likewise does fine work as the film's main antagonist, but ultimately his character "Ghost" isn't all that memorable and makes for less of an effective foil to Rapp and Hurley, as a result.
The American Assassin screenplay - credited to Stephen Schiff (The Americans) and Michael Finch (Hitman: Agent 47), as well as the writing duo of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) - is decidedly by the numbers too and features many a derivative story beat, heavily telegraphed plot twist/turn and contrived narrative development. At the same time, however, American Assassin avoids getting bogged down in unnecessary drama and rolls along towards its final destination at a refreshingly fast, yet smooth, pace. American Assassin feels like something of a throwback to the sort of cheesy action/thrillers that were popular in the 1990s in this sense (minus the winking self-awareness of a similar throwback like Olympus Has Fallen), complete with a ridiculous and over the top third act. The end result is a film that succeeds more at being silly than serious, but is also more enjoyable for it.
In terms of craftsmanship, American Assassin does a solid job of capturing its bone-crushing fights and other assorted action sequences (foot-chases, car chases, etc.) through steady editing and the cinematography from Enrique Chediak (The Maze Runner, Deepwater Horizon). The movie nevertheless fails to offer much in terms of impressive visuals, even as its globe-trotting storyline unfolds against the backdrop of striking scenery and architecture in places like Rome and England. American Assassin has the same handheld and gritty aesthetic as many a modern action/thriller before it, but doesn't establish a style of its own to distinguish it from the rest of the crowd. Again, what sets the movie's close-quarter combat situations apart from those in other films is their no-holds-barred brutal nature and not so much how they are staged and/or photographed.
At the end of the day, American Assassin is a sturdy big screen adaptation of the Mitch Rapp book series, but struggles to distinguish its protagonist and the movie around him in a significant way, beyond making them properly R-Rated. While American Assassin serves as the origin story for O'Brien's version of the Rapp character, the film itself is pretty standalone and doesn't spend too much time setting up a larger franchise, to its benefit. The film isn't a must-see in theaters, but should offer something decent for either fans of Flynn's original books and/or those in the mood for an engaging, if otherwise disposable, black ops action/thriller. At the same time, though, the odds seem more in favor of American Assassin becoming a one-off installment (a la the 2014 Jack Ryan reboot, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and not the beginning of a series of adventures starring O'Brien as Mr. Rapp.