Films dealing with shadowy government groups and mercenaries paid to carry out some of the most nefarious tasks imaginable are nothing new. Quite often there is a blurring of the lines in these films between what is acceptable and what is over the line. In American Assassin, from director Michael Cuesta, we look at one man and his passionate commitment to revenge — or is it patriotism?
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) seems like a relatively happy guy in his 20s. He is living the dream, vacationing at an exotic resort with his girlfriend. It is the perfect place to propose, so of course he pops the question and gets the answer he desires. Then, out of nowhere, gunfire rings out and bodies are falling everywhere. Mitch makes it out; his new fiancée is not so lucky.
Now, 18 months later, his discontent has reached a tipping point. Mitch has worked tirelessly to build his physical skills and become an expert marksman with a variety of weapons. He has become dangerous to many of those he trains with, displaying rage at even the slightest things. And he has even reached out to an extremist cell in an attempt to unleash his anger upon those who wronged him. But is it a matter of destroying the group who targeted the beachfront resort on that extremely personal day, or is it a turn against everyone else in this world?
The CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) has been watching Mitch for a long time. She thinks the agency can use him for their agenda. Irene recruits Mitch to black ops and sends him off to train under veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Hurley’s ways are unorthodox, but he’s the best. Can Hurley and Kennedy corral what is inside of Mitch, or is he just a loose cannon?
We’ve seen similar stories come to the big screen in the past, so the question becomes, is this a worthwhile addition to our cinematic landscape? My answer is an unequivocally tepid yes, kinda?
I liked a lot about this film. O’Brien is solid as Mitch, yet his portrayal only scratches the surface of the pain he must be enduring. Not only do we see the loss of his fiancée onscreen, but we also hear he lost his parents at a young age. Keaton embodies the grizzled vet of the group, and Lathan is underused as the deputy director. Doors are opened but not closed. Plots points are broached, but a conclusion still seems far away as the end credits roll.
And therein lies the problem: It felt like the characters were written and dropped on us like darts thrown at the screen, hoping to stick but never really satisfying. We don’t know if we should really cheer for, empathize with or rage at any of them. Even the bad guy Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) is sometimes undistinguishable from our “hero” Mitch. But maybe that’s the point; these characters are not distinguishable from one another. Revenge or patriotism? It’s a fine line, and it’s not any clearer at the end of this film.