Film Review: ‘American Assassin’

'American Assassin' Review: Mitch Rapp Makes
CBS Films

Is there room in a world already defended by the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne for pulp counter-terrorism hero Mitch Rapp?

“American Assassin,” directed by Michael Cuesta, aims to be the first in a new action franchise inspired by author Vince Flynn’s best-selling pulp about hot-headed, CIA-adjacent brute Mitch Rapp, the kind of terrorist-killing tough guy who bleeds koans like, “If you’re not busy living, you’re dying.” The 16-installment book series is a smart choice to adapt. It’s “Jack Reacher” meets “Lone Survivor,” and so apolitical that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were fans.

Rapp sneers at everyone: bureaucrats, all religions, the French. This launchpad has big ambitions and a whirlwind script where bullets zing in Malta, Ibiza, Istanbul, Tripoli, Romania, Roanoke and Rome. Yet “American Assassin” is so close-mouthed and macho that it blends in with Bourne, Bond and “Taken’s” Brian Mills. Rapp can blast his way through Turkey — but this sullen, swollen hero can’t elbow those box office heavyweights to make room.

To keep the story contemporary, Cuesta (“Kill the Messenger”) and his team of screenwriters headed by “The Americans’” Stephen Schiff shift the backstory forward in time. Instead of a grizzled professional forged when his high school sweetheart died in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, this Rapp was a 10-year-old on 9/11. When the film starts, he’s a naïve, soft-bellied millennial, played by “Teen Wolf’s” Dylan O’Brien, proposing to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on a Spanish beach.

Rapp and his now-fiancée haven’t gotten to clink cocktails when Muslim terrorists led by Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed) machine-gun the resort. Tourist corpses flop onto white outdoor mattresses. Katrina is pierced through the heart, dead-center of her innocent white bikini. And when “American Assassin” picks up 18 months later, Rapp is back home where he’s mutated into a muscle-studded, wanna-be murderer. In order to infiltrate Al-Mansur’s cell and avenge his girlfriend’s execution, he’s grown a beard and 30 pounds of abs, plus trained himself in guns, throwing stars, MMA fighting and Islamic scripture. “I am ready to go on vacation,” he types to the Tripoli-based terrorists. It’s uncertain if the irony is intentional.

Naturally, his late-night chats flag the attention of CIA Deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who does the sensible thing when one discovers a temperamental, traumatized, monomaniacal rebel: She trusts him to save the world. The film trusts him less, layering flickers of Al-Mansur’s face over other strangers when Rapp shoots to kill. In a virtual reality training sequence, Rapp fires at a hologram of Al-Mansur even when he knows the battery pack he’s wearing will punish him with a violent shock, like a rat who refuses to learn.

His assigned ex-Navy SEAL instructor Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a Persian Gulf vet who wakes up his students with gunfire, doesn’t trust him at all, and with good reason: This crazy kid reminds him of his last unhinged prodigy (Taylor Kitsch), a madman currently brokering plutonium deals in Poland. A deeper film might underline the sour joke that this angry American who wants to kill Muslims discovers his real enemy is a second angry American created by a third. This film doesn’t want it’s catharsis to get too complicated.

“American Assassin” can’t capture the grit in Flynn’s intensely researched books, which President Bush once called “a little too accurate.” (The author died of cancer in 2013.) Like Tom Cruise’s Reacher films, the character’s quick brain doesn’t translate from page to screen. He’s the strutting, silent embodiment of, “Come at me, bro,” a generic goon except for the shaggy hair and stubble that makes him look like a drummer who got on the wrong tour bus. The script doesn’t even try to give him an interior life; he’s essentially born on that Spanish beach like a dragon from an egg, and his fiancée’s sole character trait is “blonde.”

By gifting the 23-year-old character the skills readers expect, including pick-pocketing, drag racing, dog evasion, multiple languages and parkour, he’s less an intelligence expert than a superhero in jeans. The excess makes him silly. But the movie’s thrumming cello and shadowy cinematography demand we take him seriously, a combination made for giggles. Even Oscar nominee Keaton, here as lean and deadly as a garrote, nearly chokes on the braggadocio. Early on, when he stares down the camera and dares his pupils to “kill me,” the advance screening audience howled. Keaton’s better cackling with a mouthful of blood, the kind of exploitation mayhem that the film pretends is beneath it.

Sidekicks Victor (Scott Adkins) and Annika (Shiva Negar) don’t make the script’s themes about retribution versus revenge — i.e., measured justice versus guns-blazing insanity — more coherent. (Annika mostly seems there to wear spike heels and charm clerks into giving the team better hotel rooms.) Everyone spends the film ruled by their emotions even when they’re claiming not to be, and making loud declarations abut the logical way to be a globe-trotting killer, glaring at each other for not trusting their genius and then doing the opposite, anyway. The action scenes are mostly fisticuffs and knives and a few smashed cars. (The makeup team deserves kudos for their excellent abrasions.) Cuesta seems to have saved most of his budget for a big CG sequence at the climax — a fine trade-off, as Marcus Shakesheff’s fight choreography is strong, occasionally even inventive, like a flurry of traded gut-punches set on a choppy speedboat.

Still, it’s frustrating not to see Rapp evolve into the paperback chart-topping professional he’ll become — his unearned cool undermines the whole point of Flynn’s prequel, which is left having no point at all. O’Brien could grow into the role. He has an earnest, high voice — perhaps the reason he’s barely allowed to speak — and shines in the rare scenes where he gets to show personality, as do Keaton and Kitsch when they put down their guns. (Though Kitsch’s best scene involves a nasty pair of pliers.) It’d be more fun to watch the three actors swap war stories over beers than batter each other — especially when their worst enemy is the script’s coma-inducing machismo.

Film Review: 'American Assassin'

Reviewed at AMC Century City 15, Los Angeles, Sept. 11, 2017. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate release, presented with CBS Films of a Lorenzo di Bonaventura/Nick Wechsler production. Producers: di Bonaventura, Wechsler. Executive producer: Daniel M. Stillman.

Crew

Director: Michael Cuesta. Screenplay: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskowitz, based on the novel by Vince Flynn. Camera (color): Enrique Chediak. Editor: Conrad Buff. Music: Steven Price.

With

Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet, Navid Negahban, Scott Adkins. Taylor Kitsch.

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  1. Tracey Gandy says:

    Watched the movie last night and was really disappointed that it did not follow the book at all. It should have taken place in 1988 and I am pretty sure the audience would have been more receptive to the movie if it followed the book so then sequels could follow the book series. Having read all of Vince Flynn’s novels this movie did disappoint and it’s a shame because Flynn’s books were so well written and went along with headlines that everyone knew about and that the audience would be able to follow. Shame on Hollywood for changing the script to “fit” whatever it is they felt would sell tickets, guess that blew up in their face seeing that this has become a box office bomb. Thanks again Hollywood bigwigs for destroying yet another authors great work .

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  3. Heidi says:

    I need a little help in the third line of the opener para — what does “whose bleeds koans like” mean? Is there a word missing?

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  7. Dull as dirt; yet another blow ’em up real good
    been there, done that, don’t care.

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  12. DON BENNETT says:

    Maybe Hollywood needs a little more “macho”.

  13. Thumbsmasher says:

    What disappointed me most was that the movie did not even make an attempt to follow the Best-Seller book plot or story line! The screenplay was far inferior and bowed to political correctness in having the terrorist be an American! What a pathetic and tragic misrepresentation of Flynn’s masterpiece! Keaton did not really pull off Stan Hurrly’s character. Should have cast Brian Denahey in the role! Dylan O’Brian was a passable Rapp, but his character was made shallow by the poor script. Eileen Kennedy should have been older. Could have been a blockbuster if it had been propeely done! I hope they fire the director and make the sequels follow the books!!!!

  14. c mccabe says:

    I am A big fan of the Mitch Rapp novels. Loved them all. The movie did not follow the story line of American Assassin novel. It should have! They changed it up so much. However love Michael Keaton and Dylan OBrien. Thought they did well for what their script had to be.

  15. SRils says:

    Love action movies…. would give it a 3 out of 5 stars. Turn off was at end of movie when nuclear bomb exploded, EMP would have shut down helo and everything else for hundreds of miles.

    • Yirmin Snipe says:

      Blast wave would be more an issue than EMP. Military aircraft are not susceptible to an EMP as they are designed to be immune to them. Do you really think that we would be making B2 bombers that could drop nuke but then crash because the EMP from the nuke also took out the plane?

  16. James Anthony says:

    Having read the series of books by Vince Flynn – who died of prostate cancer in 2013- the character, as was that of Jack Reacher of the Lee Child novels, was miscast. Both characters are physically larger than the actors portraying them. Besides that, the proposed story line of the fiance’s murder, takes place much later in the series, which will throw off anyone looking for that in the first book. Those reviewers who panned the film (as I saw them on network news last night) probably have not read any of the series

  17. Richard Carter says:

    Two words in Nicholson’s review explain her visceral distaste for the movie: “macho” and “machismo.” Perhaps she would have preferred a transgendered Michelle Rapp who focused her anti terrorist mayhem on vicious right wing fundamentalists…but then, that wouldn’t be Vince Flynn, would it?

  18. Katelyn says:

    Whatever ok that’s perfectly fine i guess I’ll have to think twice about seeing the movie

  19. Andre says:

    People angry at this negative review are a couple of love sick teenagers for Dylan O’Brien. Anybody that criticizes anything related to him get hated on. People need to read the review and ignore these girls and see them for who they are.

    • Damien says:

      Looks like you did about as much research on these comments as the author did on the books. People are annoyed that her biggest point in the original review as a negative was completely incorrect as she criticized the movie for de-aging the character and even put the complaint in the title despite the fact Dylan is 26 and Mitch is 23 in the book. The review was then edited to remove the mistake without any acknowledgement she messed up. That’s what people are irritated, sloppy journalism. She has every right not to like the movie, but as a so called journalist she’s also expected to know what she’s talking about.

      Oh also I’m very much a guy, so.

      • Andre says:

        Sorry but I have been reading a few articles on the internet about this film and on every one you can comment on I see his fans trying to find anything to discredit negative reviews of this movie. Almost all the reviews are negative so I written them off as prejudiced.

  20. Susan says:

    All these people angry about that negative review. I admit the reviewer made one mistake in her review that has now been deleted. But a lot of the criticism in the review sounds plausible.
    It’s not like this is the only negative review about the movie. In fact, the movie has so far gotten a lot more negative than positive reviews even from very experienced reviewers.

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  23. Sam Michaels says:

    I am in Asia and I’ve already seen the movie. I LOVE it! My hubby and I love action movies of this type and I wholeheartedly disagree with the reviewer here, Amy Nicholson. The action-sequence are as authentic as Ms. Nicholson’s innocence over action films. Everyone has his/her shining moment in this movie especially the three top billers: O’Brien, Keaton and Kitsch. I won’t be a spoiler. All I could say is go watch it and decide for yourself. Don’t believe reviewers who don’t know zilch about the films they review. Or, maybe, they watch the film with their minds on bills they have to pay.

  24. Really? says:

    Wow what a huge stick up your ass. You literally think by making pithy unwarranted remarks about this movie, cast and the books that people will take to heart your review of the movie. When in all actuality, reading your review makes me think that you have nothing better to do but try to impress people with slanderous bullshit and snide comments.

  25. Dani says:

    I saw Ms. Nicholson’s tweet proudly announcing her debut writing for Variety. After reading the review, however, and seeing that she couldn’t even be bothered to do the most BASIC research imaginable, (we’re talking 4th-grader-using-Wikipedia basic) I have to laugh. If she’s not even capable of realizing that the movie didn’t age-down Mitch Rapp and that he’s most certainly not “implausibly younger” than he should be, it’s obvious she has no credibility to be writing anything for publication, much less with Variety. For someone who seems to be so staunchly defending Flynn’s series (which I doubt she’s actually read) in her imperious review, it’s like she has no clue that the movie is based on the origin story of the series. American Assassin (the first book in the Mitch Rapp prequel series, the 11th in the series overall) Throwing in the asinine “high voice” comment was just petty.

    When I found out that Amy is from MTV, that explained so much. To be perfectly blunt: nuff said. Expecting quality and journalistic integrity from someone coming from that tired, aged, network that lost its purpose years ago is futile. Although I do have to give MTV some credit for usually doing at least a modicum of research before they publish.

    Speaking of journalistic integrity, isn’t making note of edits made after publication standard? When Ms. Nicholson’s glaringly ignorant age comments were pointed out by people on social media, they suddenly disappeared, as if they had never existed. Ahh, but the internet doesn’t forget. If Amy isn’t concerned with showing professionalism by noting the review edit, Variety at least should be, one would think. It would also be nice if Variety would stick with more competent reviewers in the future.

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  28. Regina says:

    Amy girl, you were given a chance to be in Variety after coming from MTV. Criticisms are fine but the factual errors you had is embarrassing. This is your chance in Variety and you blew it by acting all high and mighty. You lost all credibility as a critic when you had to edit it cause you wanted to come across as a reader of the novels. Maybe you have to go back to MTV for a little more training on how to actually research a film and not have a bias criticism cause you thought they made his character younger. And if you care about aesthetic more, yeah the flashy and shiny shows on MTV would be great to go back to. You wanted to drag it so bad, your ignorance ended up exposing your prejudice.

  29. Frank Thomas says:

    The reviewer states, “Yet “American Assassin” is so close-mouthed and macho..” I say open your mouth I’ve got something for you.

  30. frederick@dreamerchant.com says:

    The review is not schizophrenic; it’s bi-polar. The character’s “coma-inducing machismo? Rare moments when (O’Brien’s) Mitch Rapp’s personality shines? Will not be able to elbow his way between James Bond and Jason Bourne?

    Is this movie worth the high-price of a theater ticket…or wait for it showing up inside a bin for $3.99 at Walmar

    • Sue says:

      I tried to post you some reviews from more season reviewers – but they wouldn’t go through. Check out some reviews from more experienced folks who are more familiar with it before you decide. I personally want to see this one in the theater.

  31. I feel like the article’s author, Nichole Amysson, must’ve taken a quick Wiki-glance at the list of Flynn’s novels, saw American Assassin somewhere in the middle, and been very confused. Not realizing this is a prequel chapter. Oh dear.

  32. Diane says:

    Very disappointed that they were not true to the book, Turkish arms dealer, Arab terrorists, corrupt Swiss bankers and gangster Russians. I have waited years for this movie and hopefully the ones that follow. Naturally, PC Hollywood couldn’t h be true to this series.

  33. Bob Hewitt says:

    so really just another movie with bigger explosions and bigger car chases. sigh. same old.

  34. Damien says:

    Oh look at that, they edited the review to hide their massive mistake and clear lack of research but don’t admit to actually making the mistake. No doubt they’ll start deleting comments as well that point out that mistake.

    • Maysie says:

      Even with the edit – the review doesn’t work, as it builds on her initial misconception that Rapp isn’t supposed to be a new, raw and green recruit. She totally misunderstands the movie – and that makes her entire viewing of it suspect. If this line isn’t the ultimate in irony – I don’t know what is:

      “’American Assassin’ can’t capture the grit in Flynn’s intensely researched books . . . .”

      Perhaps she should have followed Flynn’s lead – and researched a bit. I’m confused why they sent this reviewer in for this movie. It’s clear she doesn’t understand the genre.

  35. schtroumpf says:

    Very predictable movie. I get bored very quickly after the (very good) opening scene.

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  37. dixietasiam says:

    Give me back my money.
    The worst espionage movie I have watched.

  38. I wasn’t expecting great reviews for the film, just because of it’s very nature. But I was at least expecting the reviews to be accurate. The author lost all credibility when she mentioned that Mitch Rapp was cast younger than in the books. This is completely false. O’Brien was 24 when cast (just turned 26 a few weeks ago), Mitch is 23. After that falsity, I really did not want to finish the review and did not.

  39. Maysie says:

    Also – the reviewer praises the book in her review and then criticizes everything in the movie that the book was about. It’s ALL macho braggadocio. And the characters as portrayed in the movie version American Assassin? That’s exactly how they’re written in the book.

  40. Maysie says:

    “Implausibly younger than in the books”?! Are you kidding me? American Assassin is the prequel book. Rapp is 23 in the book and started off as an untested “millennial” (well, the 1990 version of one anyway). What a horrible, inaccurate review.

  41. peacehalo@hotmail.com says:

    Truly disgraceful review, how does “He has an earnest, high voice” add to the discussion regarding this film?

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  43. Ellie says:

    Can’t addresd the movie or books, haven’t seen/read. However, the review is poorly written end edited.

  44. Chir says:

    I’m curious to see if Variety will allow a review to stand when its biggest criticism for the movie is inaccurate and due to bad research on her past. Not great for your first review on the site, is it Amy?

    • Matt says:

      There is plenty of criticism, not only this one point. Sounds like you’re an angry book fan that just doesn’t like a negative review.

      • Chris says:

        I actually haven’t read the books, was curious about the movie and amusingly knew this was an origin story from the books so I seem to be in a better position then this reviewer. But nice try Matty! :)

      • piper100 says:

        Not really, this reviewer basically talks about the books like she has read them but then why is she saying Dylan is to young when American assassin mitch book, he is 23? I’m also pretty sure Dylan doesn’t look sixteen or eighteen, jeez.

      • Maysie says:

        She is praising the book while criticizing the film for doing exactly what was in the book (in terms of character, machoness, etc. the movie changed some plot points). She’s obviously not familiar with it at all and shouldn’t have used it as a comparison.

      • James says:

        This critic has obviously not read the books. They sound like a poorly informed, snotty-nosed brat. This is why I generally don’t read reviews…

  45. piper100 says:

    Aging down, mate Mitch Rapp is 23 in this book American assassin, Dylan is 26. Well I guess despite talking about the books you haven’t read them or even picked up American assassin?

  46. Lisa says:

    Stopped reading after “wrong foot by making counter-terrorism hero Mitch Rapp implausibly younger” lol he’s literally the same age as in the novel. This is why you can’t take reviews seriously anymore.

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