Every time I see a movie with “American” in the title, I can’t help but look for whatever element in the movie specifically calls for “American” to be there. Sometimes the use of the word is in reference to the film’s deliberate commentary on America as a society or on its place in the world, whether positive or negative. It makes sense in these cases to include it in the title because the film is, at least in part, about America.
But increasingly, over the last several years, it seems Hollywood has decided to cash in on the phrase as some sort of box office draw–whether or not the content of the film asks for it — as though summoning the country’s name alone is going to put butts in seats in a way that would be unachievable otherwise. I have done very little research on the topic, but I’d have to assume that the mere utterance of “American” doesn’t really speak to any beyond the most fervently patriotic moviegoers.“American Ultra,” “An American Haunting,” “American Horror Story,” “American Idiot,” “An American Ghost Story.” “The American.” Add to this list “American Assassin,” a movie that’s as much about America as “American Pie” is about pie. Sure, it’s in the movie. But it’s hardly important to the story. And unfortunately, the title’s seeming disregard for uniqueness in exchange for potential commercial gain rings throughout the entire film.
The movie follows a young man named Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) who, after watching his fiancée murdered during a terrorist attack, attempts to lone-wolf his way into the terrorist cell via the dark web, or something, and destroy it from within. Meanwhile, the U.S.government has been keeping an eye on him, in hopes of recruiting him to an elite task force led by Cold War vet Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). After putting Rapp through training, Hurley learns of a plutonium explosive being developed by his former pupil, the now-rogue Ghost (Taylor Kitsch). Hurley must then lead Rapp and the rest of the task force on a mission to stop Ghost from carrying out his plan.
It’s in this prodigal-son-versus-new-favorite element that “Assassin” finds its most notable example of denying itself the pleasure of being distinctive. Rather than exploring the more personal dynamic between Hurley and Rapp, as well as Hurley and Ghost, and all but foregoing any tension or jealousy between Rapp and Ghost, the film decides to prioritize the bomb threat as the driving narrative. It becomes abundantly clear when the film chooses its course that this could have been something much more interesting. Maybe not groundbreaking, but certainly more creative.
That’s not to say “American Assassin,” directed by Michael Cuesta and written by, like, four different people, is a bad movie. But it certainly makes a habit of squandering its own opportunities to stand above the cold, grey mob of political action thrillers that every year seem to come and go from public radar in a matter of weeks. Of course, that also means there are elements present that are good enough to make it worth noting their under-use: A brutal opener, involving a shooting at a beach resort, tells viewers to expect a film that won’t hold back. Brief moments of interesting camera work and fight choreography tease us with the idea that this could have been much more kinetic and memorable. O’Brien and Keaton do their best to bring some life to an otherwise run-of-the-mill screenplay. (One scene in particular, which features Keaton’s character being violently tortured, demonstrates his unique skill at injecting eccentric muscle into even the most underwritten characters.) But the film’s compulsion to clip along at a restless pace, toward a third act that is infinitely less interesting than the rest of the story, prevents these small flourishes from being explored to their fullest.
Many could probably find “American Assassin” fun and entertaining, and in some ways it is. The action is at least OK for most of the film, there are moments that allow the actors to shine and the story touches on some interesting character dynamics, even if it opts not to flesh them out. In fact, it might be worth seeing if only for Keaton’s torture scene. But between the underserved relationships and the all-too-familiar bomb-plot narrative, “Assassin” never quite gets to the heights of engagement with which it seems to play.