'American Assassin' Balances a Complicated Idea with Knife Fights

The counterterrorism movie falls just short of making a point, but it's ridiculously entertaining.

Hollywood’s latest action-thriller, American Assassin, strives to be a die-hard takedown of domestic and international terrorism; the problem is that it’s a really good action movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a shadow of something greater lurking behind the fights and explosions.

Revenge is the driving force of American Assassin. Based on Vince Flynn’s 2010 novel of the same name, the film stars Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf, The Maze Runner) as Mitch Rapp, a violent 20-something who’s chasing down retribution on his own terms, caught in the pitfalls of grief before he’s pulled into the brutal world of CIA-sanctioned counterterrorism. The film aspires to offer social commentary on terrorism, but a visceral action movie is what we really get.

From the get-go, O’Brien’s Rapp is dodging terrorists’ bullets on a beach in Spain. He watches one of the terrorists, a member of a group run out of Libya, deliver the kill shot to his new fiancé, Katrina, whose now-lifeless hazel eyes stare back at him as he screams in agony.

Flash-forward 18 months and Mitch has honed himself into a living weapon. Wracked by PTSD and hell-bent on revenge, Mitch doesn’t know when enough is enough. He learns Arabic, excels at hand-to-hand combat, and scares people at the shooting range. The transformation is inhuman — O’Brien’s doe eyes are a sharp contrast to his pinpoint accuracy and the hard lines of an assault rifle against his shoulder.

The next couple hours of the movie are a surprisingly well-paced montage of the CIA delivering Mitch to “warrior” and ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) and Hurley’s subsequent attempts to train some semblance of discipline into Mitch. It doesn’t go too well (a few details that could be considered spoilers are ahead): Mitch and Hurley are tasked with hunting down the parts to a nuclear bomb circling the globe. They happen across Hurley’s former trainee-turned-domestic terrorist Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), and everything goes downhill from there.

Queue the bloodshed, dogs trapped in cars, break-ins, makeshift bathtub interrogations, graphic torture scenes, and Kitsch diving out a window.

Engaging as they may be, these scenes tend to distract from the matter at hand: these guys are here to stop terrorists from hurting people. It’s cool to watch O’Brien tear through a room full of foreign baddies (men of color) as he attempts to catch the real, domestic threat (a white guy), but the film tends to get caught up in its own reveries. It focuses more on Mitch’s trauma than the mission and drops subtle hints throughout about where most terrorism in the United States comes from: disillusioned, often white, U.S. citizens.

The film’s final struggle is the best action sequence in the movie and indicative of American Assassin’s problem. Two characters are tossed about on a speedboat, the waves throwing the characters against doors and the interior of the boat’s ceiling. They grapple for a knife, aiming for the throat, willing to die for their separate causes — but they can’t find a center of gravity.

American Assassin wants to entertain you, it just doesn’t know how to translate the whole “not all non-white people and non-Americans are terrorists” thing into an actionable plot-line that’s not too overpowering for a fun action movie. Just like in real life, terrorism is a complicated thing only made more so by geopolitics. The movie tries its hand at explaining those subtleties and kind of fails.

Hurley’s trainees subtly suspect men of color with beards over any other person as their target — including a white, blonde woman in one training exercise — throughout the movie. When Ghost, the white, homegrown terrorist, rears his head, the team rallies without question, accepting the threat for what it is and hating him that much more for his betrayal. Counteracting racial prejudice plays a part, but it’s probably less prominent than the film intended; it’s more of a background theme viewers have to suss out for themselves rather than a blatant fact.

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American Assassin doesn’t provide as much insight into the world of counterterrorism as it could have or as it seems to have wanted to. Because the action is so good, because Mitch is so unrealistically (but fantastically) capable, and because the film’s R rating allows for more visible violence than most of its genre predecessors, the film is focused on the crack of bone and the single-minded efficiency with which Mitch wields a weapon. And that’s fine.

If the movie is setting itself up as the first in Hollywood’s big new action series, then building on the character rather than the message is the smart route to take. The story of a handsome, white, American man taking revenge on terrorists over the death of his fiance is far more engaging to a wider audience than the deeper message about subverting expectations of terrorism.

American Assassin tries to make a point, it just doesn’t get all the way there. But, damn, if it isn’t one hell of a ride.

American Assassin premieres in theaters on September 15.

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