CROWN HEIGHTS  — Michael Keaton stars in American Assassin. (Special photo / CBS Films)
CROWN HEIGHTS — Michael Keaton stars in American Assassin. (Special photo / CBS Films)

by Michael Clark
Movie Critic

If American Assassin were a food dish, it would be a dehydrated soup mix. Once you add water and at first blush, it might pass as homemade to very hungry people. If you add sour cream and put it in a bread bowl, it could come across as scratch. 

The studio and filmmakers behind American Assassin took a dehydrated screenplay containing all of the necessary ingredients and added a little too much water. Luckily, they also added a shot of rotgut whiskey, which gives it a tiny bit of kick.

The best thing American Assassin has going for it is something most movies like it doesn’t: a hard R rating. In a world of James Bonds, fast cars driven by furious knuckleheads and every other flick with secret agents trotting around the globe limited by PG-13 barriers, this means bigger audiences but less in the way of realism. On that level, American Assassin bests all of the competition. It’s more violent, profane and includes nudity, things none of the mega-huge action franchises can offer.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that each and every character, plot line, camera angle, and production choice is drowning in the deep end of the cinematic cliché pool. There is not a single original thought contained within its frames.

Based on Vince Flynn’s 2010 novel of the same name, American Assassin was directed by Michael Cuesta, whose past five films were seen by slightly more people than could fit into your average high-school gymnasium. Cobbled together by no less than four screenwriters, it escapes the usual “too many cooks” scenario and instead is just guilty of pure, unadulterated laziness.

The low-wattage Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner, the Teen Wolf TV series — basically a taller, thinner version of Mark Wahlberg) plays Mitch Rapp, a college student involved in a beach attack by militant/radical Islamic terrorists that claim the life of his short-lived fiancée. After 18 months of beefing up, self-educating himself in tactical warfare, perfecting bad hygiene and working his way into the terrorist web as a faux-disgruntled American ex-patriot, Mitch is ready to exact his revenge, something that gets the attention of the C.I.A., represented by Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan).
Kennedy recognizes Mitch’s drive and looks to grizzled black op vet Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to fine tune his skills. This extends to an explosion/flood of unchecked testosterone and multiple tests of wills between the two men at a secret Virginia camp that leads to where all touchy mentor-student movie relationships eventually land.

To the screenwriting group’s credit, they include a timely real-life event (the catastrophically ill-advised and boneheaded nuclear arms deal between the Obama Administration and Iran) as the springboard of the story. Various Iranian operatives (some obvious and others much more obvious) come and go until it becomes clear it is all being orchestrated by “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch, now a thinner and shorter version of Timothy Olyphant), one of Hurley’s former protégées with more than a few loose screws and a victim mentality excuse for his anti-social behavior.

Taking place in two dozen or so global locations (identified with typed white print on the bottom corners of the screen) American Assassin also has a slight kinship to the John Wick franchise, as it features a lead character bent on revenge, is poor at taking orders, but lacking in humor for (you guessed it) an R-rated action franchise.

Ending in a manner that practically guarantees a sequel, American Assassin is facing heavy competition from the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Mother!, an over-performing It in its second weekend, Week 2 of the NFL, Week 3 of college football and primo late summer/early autumn weather.

Given its relatively modest $30-plus million budget and international appeal (except for maybe… um, most of the Middle East) it eventually will cover its costs, which is all any studio needs to greenlight at least one more of “the same old story, same old song and dance.” *
(* title credit to Aerosmith).