Watch one trailer for American Assassin and you can pretty much figure out exactly what it’s going to deliver. That’ll remain true if you’ve watched any mediocre spy thriller in your lifetime. There isn’t a single new shot, scene, character, or idea within the movie. Does that make it worthless? Well, no. It provides moderate entertainment for a small percentage of its running time; the rest, unfortunately, is a waste. But, hey, at least it’s not going to make the audience do any work, right?
The film stars Dylan O’Brien as a twentysomething dude who, in the film’s opening scene, becomes engaged to his girlfriend (Charlotte Vega) and subsequently watches her die after a terrorist group starts shooting up the beach on which they were vacationing. He is wounded but survives, spends the next 18 months training and planning revenge, and even gets really close to infiltrating one of the terrorists’ cells. The CIA gets involves, recruits him, puts him with a tough-guy trainer (Michael Keaton), and eventually sends him and a team out on a couple of missions. Roll credits.
Our protagonist is The Special—he’s referred to as such at least once in the film—and is someone who tests off the charts and is basically perfect except for an attitude problem. He doesn’t always listen to orders and has a bit of a temper. I bet you can figure out how that’ll factor in! The scenes that have Keaton trying to test and manipulate our hero are the best ones in the movie.
The rest? You’ve seen it all, and it’s not fun. At least the grizzled mentor/exuberant rookie dynamic has Michael Keaton, who is usually enjoyable to watch. The spy stuff is bog-standard, all revolving around a plot to stop some people from procuring stolen plutonium and prevent a nuclear bomb from being made. American Assassin also throws in Taylor Kitsch as “Ghost,” a villain whose relation to the CIA will not at all surprise you (the movie treats it as a big reveal). He exists to propel the plot and stop the good guys from far too easily winning, mostly because he acts as a clairvoyant. He can predict and stop everything they’re going to do. If only they had an outside-the-box thinker on the team…
American Assassin is a seen-one-seen-them-all kind of movie.
The action scenes go from passable to outrageously stupid. The hand-to-hand fights are decent, especially because of our protagonist’s MMA training. That adds a slightly different dynamic to the choreography, and the cinematography and editing (mostly) allow us to see what’s going on. On the other side of the spectrum, American Assassin completely fails each time it tries to go big.
For example, its climax has a helicopter and a fleet of ships on the ocean, and the vast majority of it has been created with noticeably subpar CGI. It wants to be this big, majestic finale and, instead, it’s impossible to take it seriously because the special effects are so bad. American Assassin didn’t have the biggest budget, but that doesn’t excuse the lackluster effects that we have to sit through, and that takes us out of the experience. It’s laughable.
Dylan O’Brien isn’t a charismatic lead. He wasn’t in the first two Maze Runner movies and he isn’t here, either. It doesn’t help that his character has one trait—he wants revenge—but there are times that he goes for charming-snark, or pitty-me-I’m-wounded, or actual-action-hero, and none of it feels sincere coming from him. Michael Keaton is fun for what time he gets, Sanaa Lathan gets a nothing role as a high-ranking CIA director, and nobody else leaves much of an impact on the audience. It’s not an “actor’s movie” anyway, but it would’ve been nice to have some characters to latch onto or some performances to help us care about what’s happening.
American Assassin is a seen-one-seen-them-all kind of movie. You’ve seen almost every frame of this movie in other, better movies before, and you’ve seen it done better. You won’t care for the character, you won’t care about the plot, the action is mediocre-to-bad, and the performances are mostly indifferent at best. Michael Keaton generates a little bit of fun, but he can’t make American Assassin even close to worthwhile.
Conclusion: American Assassin is a bad spy thriller with an even worse finale.
Recommendation: Just go watch the good Bourne movies again or something.