The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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 Star Spangled Killer

Dylan O'Brien
Dylan O'Brien
CBS Films
 112 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Michael Cuesta
Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton 
American Assassin

It’s never a good sign about a movie when a critic starts thinking that another actor in the cast should be playing the leading man role, but that’s just what went through my mind about halfway through the new action thriller, American Assassin. Because, as I struggled unsuccessfully to accept Dylan O’Brien as America’s most highly trained international rouge operative, I kept thinking how much more convincing the film would have been with villain Taylor Kitsch in the lead role. Even worse, I kept wondering how much better the film would have been with considerably older co-star Michael Keaton in that lead role.


Unfortunately, in the actual film I saw, it’s O’Brien, not Kitsch or Keaton, who plays superspy Mitch Rabb, hero of a series of thrillers by Vince Flynn. In most of Flynn’s books, Rabb is an older man, but, after several novels, Flynn wrote American Assassin as a prequel, describing Rabb’s origins as an agent. While I’m not familiar with Flynn’s novels, I am quite familiar with many, many movies similar to American Assassin, including Matt Damon’s Bourne series. In fact, if Jason Bourne didn’t have amnesia, Damon’s portrayal of him in the earlier films would be pretty close to what Mitch Rabb probably should be.


The Rabb who appears onscreen in American Assassin is a former college student whose world is shattered when terrorists attack the beachfront resort where he is staying with his fiancée and murder her along with dozens of other tourists. Rabb survives and is obsessed with finding and killing the terrorists responsible. In the first fifteen minutes of the movie, he manages to track them down and get an invitation as a potential new recruit to their base in North Africa, where his initial meeting with the terrorist leader gets cut short by the arrival of a CIA hit squad that kills everyone in the vicinity except for Rabb.


The CIA doesn’t know what to do with Rabb, but Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) thinks he could be a valuable recruit and persuades Rabb to go into training for the Orion Team, an off-the-rader unit that takes out terrorists whenever and wherever found. Although Rabb has taught himself martial arts, he is relentlessly drilled by Stan Hurley (Keaton), a veteran CIA trainer.


Rabb’s first mission is a dilly. He and Hurley are part of a team sent to Europe to recover some missing weapons grade plutonium and a nuclear triggering device, both of which wind up in the hands of a mercenary named Ghost (Kitsch). At first, Ghost appears to be merely a high-level arms dealer looking to sell a bomb to a faction of the Iranian government, but, eventually it is revealed that he is manipulating the Iranians in order to finish the bomb and use it himself.


From what I’ve been able to gather, I can see how Flynn’s Rabb novels were successful and how the idea of a rogue special operations unit fighting fire with fire could make for a popular movie. However, the execution of American Assassin leaves a lot to be desired. As Rabb points out in one of his many arguments with Hurley, the cinematic version of Rabb’s unit seems to be a typical governmental play-by-the-numbers-and-get-nothing done group of foulups that inevitably inhabit lone wolf thrillers like American Assassin. Even by the standards of movie thrillers, the plot of this movie is needlessly dense and convoluted up until the point that Ghost somehow makes his way past the U.S. government’s entire intelligence apparatus while lugging a bulky nuke around.


There is a considerable gap between the setup of American Assassin and the actual execution. On a number of occasions, the script appears to buy into Vince Flynn’s premise of taking on the bad guys at their own game and strongly hints that most of the characters in the film are driven by personal motives, often not admirable, rather than any ideology or patriotism. On the other hand, the movie also portrays most of the army of CIA agents on hand to stop Ghost as bureaucratic bunglers, making Rabb’s decision not to go along with orders seem far more pragmatic than revenge driven.


The one saving grace in American Assassin is Michael Keaton, who also plays easily the most complex character in the film. Hurley’s version of tough love turns out to be the reason that Ghost is after him in the first place (it’s significant that the character of Ghost and the nuclear weapon subplot are not in Flynn’s novel), and Keaton manages to elevate his performance enough so that even his very predictable mentoring arc with O’Brien seems fresh. The highlight of his performance is perhaps the most gruesome scene in the movie, in which Ghost interrogates him by pulling out fingernails, an experience Keaton appears to actually enjoy. Further, Keaton looks the part. Even though he is in his mid-60’s, Keaton is convincing in his action scenes, so much so that he puts younger co-stars Kitsch and O’Brien to shame.


Although Keaton and Kitsch look and act the part, O’Brien does not. Director Michael Cuesta makes a severe mistake early in the movie when he takes the year that Rabb spends training himself, learning the tenets of Islam, and figuring out how to contact the terrorists on line and then reduces the entire process down to a musical montage. This sequence could have established Rabb’s bona fides with the audience, but, instead, he comes across as an amateur who taught himself to speak Arabic.


However, when American Assassin does get down to action, O’Brien acquits himself rather well, especially in the climactic showdown with Kitsch. Director Michael Cuesta is mostly known for his television work, and, for better or worse, the action in American Assassin will remind the audience of a well-made cable TV episode. The movie lacks the one defining set piece that will resonate with the audience, substituting instead some lower end CGI effects. Still, while the fight scenes won’t wow an audience, they aren’t completely inept either.


That rather faint praise is the best way to describe American Assassin. As an action film, it’s serviceable, with one magnetic, charismatic supporting character who is more or less balanced out by a good looking but bland leading man. Since I haven’t read any of Flynn’s books, I don’t have any residual good will stemming from warm feelings about the literary Rabb. The cinematic version, however, is thoroughly generic, as is the movie itself. Poor box office may already have assassinated this film’s chance to anchor a franchise, but most people won’t even know it’s come and gone. 

In this scene, Michael Keaton comes to the rescue of Dylan O'Brien.

Read other reviews of American Assassin:


American Assassin (2017) on IMDb