With a barrage of action movies barreling into theaters every year, it takes something special to stand out. In the case of the critically lauded Atomic Blonde, that something special included an ass-kicking Charlize Theron busting walls and balls in a dizzyingly complicated long take fight sequence. In the new aspiring espionage franchise American Assassin, um, how about seeing a pretty blonde shot right through her heart right after she's been proposed to on a picturesque beach?
Based on the Vince Flynn novel, American Assassin begins with the formative vacation where Mitch Rapp (Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien) went from promising Brown University student to revenge-seeking vigilante. With splish-splashing children and sunbathers watching, he proposes to his gorgeous girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega), who looks like an angel in sparkling white bikini with sunshine for hair. But just when their future seems set and sunny, terrorists streak across the sands, gunning down all tourists they cross. That includes Katrina. With Mitch looking on, a horrid red hole appears right in the center of her chest. He runs to her, but its too late. The title card will cold cut right after a grim close-up of her dead-eyed expression of mute shock. It's a sequence so shocking and garish in its tragedy and gore that it's jarringly amusing. But little else in this so-called thriller musters much excitement.
Heartbroken and furious, Mitch decides to become a one-man wrecking crew against terrorism. He's too reckless to be trusted in a martial arts class or on a gun range. Nonetheless, the CIA is impressed with his obsessive drive to kill terrorists, and his can-do attitude to do just that. So they bring him onto a special team where his discipline problem will be alternately ignored, proclaimed as the reason he's a perfect assassin, and as the likely cause he'll die in the field. We're at once supposed to admire and fear for Mitch because of his lack of self-control. But it's near impossible to muster any emotion over the stoic performance of the handsome but bland O'Brien.
Granted, he throws himself full-bodied into the grueling training montage that boasts hi-tech laser tag, wrestling in the woods, and a test mission played out in a CIA-constructed IKEA set, complete with cooing couples doting over impossibly named end tables. But O'Brien delivers every line with the same half-sighed irritation, as if he's huffy that his mom used grape jelly instead of strawberry on his PBJ. The action scenes--swish-panning through cafes, down city streets, and into underground tunnels--likewise lack verve and imagination. In a summer when we saw such inventive stunt set pieces as the musical chase scenes of Baby Driver, the all-out-insanity of Atomic Blonde, the Amazon throwdowns of Wonder Woman, and the high-swinging exhilaration offered by Spider-Man: Homecoming, American Assassin's unmemorable action feels instantly forgettable, and almost insulting. That's bad news for O'Brien, who is seeking redemption from the underwhelming Scorch Trials series.
With this in mind, American Assassin turns wickedly meta once its villain is unveiled. Taylor Kitsch, who went from TV's Friday Night Lights to infamously fronting film flops like Battleship and John Carter, swaggers in as "Ghost," a former CIA operative turned mercenary who is seeking revenge on all those who left him to hang when a mission didn't work out. As Kitsch seethes, "Who's the new me?" It feels like maybe we're not just talking about the hot young CIA recruit, but maybe about Hollywood's latest young hunk being poised for action movie stardom. To Kitsch's credit, he brings decent menace to his villainous role, and seems to truly relish throwing down with O'Brien in a brawl set aboard a speedboat. But both are put to shame any time Michael Keaton shares the screen.
Keaton co-stars as tough-as-nails CIA handler Stan Hurley, a none-too-subtle father figure for both Rapp and Ghost. With a bit of belly and his signature sneer, Keaton is every inch the gruff and over-it hardass who has no patience for these boys' selfish recklessness. His focus is the mission, not their egos. Whether he's tormenting Rapp with videos of that hellish holiday, having a scowl-off with his steely superior (Sanaa Lathan), or barking at his trainees, Keaton carries a compelling volatility that explodes in a horrific torture scene where pliers, electrocution, and even a blowtorch prove no match for his crooked smile, cranked all the way up to crazy. When O'Brien or Kitsch try for tough, they feel like kids trying on their Daddy's shiny work shoes. When Keaton scoffs in the face of having his fingernails ripped out, the audience wakes from the seeming comas to whoop and spark with applause.
American Assassin attempts to lazily loops in hot topics like nuclear war, terrorism and "fake news" to trick audiences into thinking its fresh or relevant. It's neither. Instead director Michael Cuesta's follow-up to the biting biopic Kill The Messenger is a flat, uninspired espionage flick that's more forgettable than ferocious. Keaton's great -- but he's never not been. Watch literally nearly other Keaton movie for the rush minus the mush.
American Assassin is playing in theaters now.