Movie review: American Assassin can’t lose but does anyway

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A lack of suspense kills all hope of intrigue in American Assassin starring Dylan O’Brien. Courtesy New Line Cinema A lack of suspense kills all hope of intrigue in American Assassin starring Dylan O’Brien. Courtesy New Line Cinema

Could there possibly be anything more boring than a supposed spy thriller where the main character wins all the time and is immediately right with every hunch? That’s the experience of watching American Assassin’s Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), a character who is devoid of real personality so he can more fully embody the many contradictory shades of right-wing paranoia. Whenever he defies orders and endangers the lives of his team as well as his countrymen, it turns out he made the right call. Every time he suspects someone of not being totally forthright, particularly if that person is not white, they are actually bad. Even if you buy into the warped worldview from which Rapp was created—American foreign policy is only to stop bad guys and Iran’s only ambition is to nuke Israel—there has got to be a better proxy for your nationalist insecurity than this guy.

We meet Rapp while he is on an island getaway with his girlfriend. Moments after he proposes marriage and she accepts, terrorists strike, wounding him and killing her. Rapp then dedicates his life to hunting down the terrorist cell responsible for her death, but not before his dedication and talent catches the attention of the CIA, which recruits him to help stop Iran from acquiring the capabilities to weaponize its nukes so it can annihilate Israel.

American Assassin
R, 115 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 & IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

Is this sort of thing exciting to anyone? If you really believe that the Iranian regime has no interest in self-preservation and would try such a move, you still deserve better movies than American Assassin, despite your ill-conceived views. Even on its own terms, American Assassin is astonishingly, impressively bad. It looks confused, the set pieces make no sense, and the plot cranks along so unevenly that it’s impossible to figure out why any given fight, confrontation or chase is happening. More than once, a shot is chosen where an extra actually stands out to the point that you think they’re part of the action. Yes, even the extras in this movie have no idea what they’re doing.

The cast is only part of the problem; O’Brien may be charismatic in other roles, but as a traumatized CIA operative he carries all the dramatic weight of a wet paper bag. Michael Keaton commits to the role of former Navy SEAL Stan Hurley, but as a character he’s basically limited to barking the same three platitudes about following orders over and over again. Taylor Kitsch shows surprising enthusiasm as the chief villain. Everyone not mentioned here is either forgettable or their talent is massively wasted (especially that of Sanaa Lathan).

Director Michael Cuesta has proven he is more than capable of thoughtful filmmaking with his debut, 2001’s L.I.E. But the spy genre is one that requires either intelligent intrigue or a flair for style, neither of which is on display.

American Assassin could have been partially saved with just the slightest hint of suspense. Even when a hero is a Jack Ryan figure—always morally upright, unflappably patriotic, recites the entire Pledge of Allegiance instead of saying “Bless you” when somebody sneezes—he still has to determine the best course of action after a series of disasters put him in a difficult position. His instincts are occasionally wrong, he trusts the wrong person, possibly even loses a few fistfights along the way. There is no such build here—it is just pure American wrath guiding Rapp. But as most movies with “American [noun]” in the title these days, it has no idea what it wants to say about either America or assassins.


Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Home Again, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Mother!, Mean Girls, Putney Swope

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Annabelle: Creation, Despicable Me 3, Dunkirk, The Emoji Movie, Girls Trip, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Home Again, IT, Leap!, Logan Lucky, Mother!, Spider-man: Homecoming, Wind River

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Apollo 13, The Big Sick, Home Again, IT, Mother!, The Trip to Spain, Wind River

Even on its own terms, American Assassin is astonishingly, impressively bad. It looks confused, the set pieces make no sense, and the plot cranks along so unevenly it’s impossible to figure out why any given fight, confrontation or chase is happening.

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