Michael Cuesta’s American Assassin begins so well, with an intriguing premise of a victim of a terrorist attack going undercover to infiltrate a jihadist militant group to seek revenge for the death of his fiancé. But this narrative device is short-lived, merely making up the opening act to this underwhelming thriller, as what transpires is just your archetypal Hollywood actioner.
Dylan O’Brien plays the aforementioned individual Mitch Rapp, who watches on helplessly as his newly-engaged partner is killed on a beach at the hands of terrorists. He lives only to seek vengeance on those who orchestrated the attack, and his ability to infiltrate the organisation alerts CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who believes Mitch could be a valuable, if erratic addition to their counter-terrorism endeavour, fearing he may be too emotionally invested, and thus hot-headed in his approach. So he’s taken under the wing of the unforgiving veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) as they strive to prevent an elusive operative who appears to be hellbent on starting World War 3 with a nuclear attack.
American Assassin features many action sequences peppered around a thinly veiled narrative, with various fights and car chases taking place across the indelible, European landscape as they parade through Rome for the latter half of the movie. It’s a bit like Taken, but without that same swagger, following, albeit affectionately, the tropes and beats of the genre at hand. One of which, which does present some of the film’s more engaging moments, is the Mr. Miyagi/Karate Kid type relationship between Hurley and Rapp, with the wiser, older man taking on the younger, impetuous youth as something of a project. Both actors turn in accomplished performances too, though for Keaton, who has been something of a roll of late with two consecutive Oscar winning productions in Birdman and Spotlight – has proven that they can’t all be good.
It is interesting, however, to study a current socio-political climate, and tap into a very present anxiety in the modern world and give it the Hollywood treatment – of which there are no qualms, for it allows us to indulge in these themes through an accessible piece of cinema, and there is a place for movies of this nature. But it’s just lacking in originality, in desperate need some sense of ingenuity, as a generic film befitting of its terribly generic title.
American Assassin is released on September 14th.