“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.