‘American Assassin’ Review: Tries and Fails to be the New Bourne

Kim Taylor-Foster
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of 5
Review Essentials
  • Dylan O'Brien gives his all
  • Michael Keaton is as watchable as ever
  • It falls back on a two-dimensional villain
  • Script is uninspired
  • Story is derivative

What is ‘American Assassin’?

When Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) loses his fiancée in a terrorist attack on a beach, he makes it his mission to dole out his own kind of justice to the perpetrators. He trains himself up and pursues those responsible. When he gets himself into a sticky situation, Rapp is saved during a US raid and recruited by the CIA into their ranks. Sent to train with tough Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), the two become embroiled in a mission to investigate a wave of attacks on military and civilian targets. They uncover more than they bargained for, and must put a stop to the mysterious operative intent on starting a global war.

O’Brien Shines

Dylan O’Brien is best known for two roles. Those are wisecracking sidekick Stiles in the long-running Teen Wolf series and Thomas in the Maze Runner films. But his role as black ops recruit Mitch Rapp in American Assassin signals his legitimate transition to grown-up movie star.

As Rapp, O’Brien gives it everything, and he comes away with his head held high. He makes a convincing special forces agent, albeit a hot-headed one with some serious baggage. He holds his own against veteran film star Michael Keaton in the acting stakes here, as well as against action specialist and martial arts expert Scott Adkins, who plays fellow spook Victor.

“His psych profile is exactly what I’ve been looking for,” declares Sanaa Lathan’s CIA honcho Irene Kennedy upon finding Rapp. Similarly, O’Brien is precisely what American Assassin needs to save it from sinking entirely. He brings an intensity and believability to the role that comes partly from his mindset at the time of making the film. Following the actor’s involvement in a high-profile accident on the set of the third Maze Runner film, The Death Cure, his road to recovery involved a determination to embrace the demands of the production and to make this role his own. American Assassin will only be good for Dylan O’Brien.

It Doesn’t Cut It As the Next Bourne

American Assassin beach
Dylan O'Brien's Mitch Rapp gets caught up in a terrorist attack on a beach.

Sadly, however, this adaptation of the Vince Flynn novel isn’t worthy of O’Brien’s talents. Or Keaton’s come to that.

If American Assassin is meant to kickstart a new spy franchise, it’s got its work cut out. Bond or Bourne it ain’t. A pedestrian script and unoriginal storyline are the biggest obstacles to its success. It just never sets the screen alight in any respect.

That’s not to say it’s totally without merit. The film starts promisingly, hanging Mitch’s story off a terrorist attack which sees his fiancée gunned down on a beach at a holiday resort. He’s just proposed, she’s accepted, and then it all ends in tragedy.

This part of the film, which you may have seen in the trailers, is all too fresh and familiar to audiences, depicting recent events like those in Tunisia and Turkey in a convincing, and affecting way. It’s pretty graphic, and puts you right there with them in a way that you might not have done had the film stuck with the trigger event from the book – the 1988 Lockerbie air disaster.

Formulaic With Some Compelling Moments

American Assassin climax
The film's climax has its moments.

It’s fair to say American Assassin starts strongly. Had the film continued along these lines it could have been a winner – offering up a moving depiction of the effects of the kinds of horrifying terrorist attacks we see on the news today. But instead, it veers away from this powerful and pertinent opening to mire itself in familiar, albeit safer, territory.

The gung-ho escapist action fare that follows sits awkwardly within this framework. Deciding to pursue a storyline with a two-dimensional crazed megalomaniac villain who wants to build a bomb and use it gives us nothing new. Neither does weaving in another familiar narrative strand, that of an initially fractious relationship between mentor and mentee blossoming into a strong bond of mutual respect. Both undermine the film’s opening scenes.

That introductory sequence aside, other highlights include a torture scene that will make you wince, alongside some half-decent action set-pieces and fight scenes. The moment where Rapp forces an opponent’s broken radius bone into his throat is a doozy.

The finale too, in which we see the after-effects of a massive explosion, give plenty of other similar actioners a run for their money.

Is ‘American Assassin’ Any Good?

A first look image from CBS Films of Dylan O'Brien as Mitch Rapp in American Assassin
Dylan O'Brien as Mitch Rapp in 'American Assassin'.

If the trailers sucked you in with their vivid depiction of the beach attack and Dylan O’Brien’s bearded assassin, you’ll be disappointed at what’s being peddled by director Michael Cuesta. O’Brien loses the beard pretty quickly, just as the film all too soon ditches its leanings towards the hard-hitting, topical fare it sells itself on.

A standard, by-numbers political action thriller with an inferior Bond-esque, two-dimensional bad guy, American Assassin fails to leave much of a mark. O’Brien and Keaton emerge untainted – both have a magnetism that is always watchable – but uninventive script and unoriginal plot scupper the film’s chances of making an impact.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.
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