American Assassin

by Charles Nash

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 15, 2017

'American Assassin'
'American Assassin'  

There have been countless rip-offs of the "Bourne" franchise for years, but if there was ever one specifically engineered for the Trump demographic, it would be American Assassin. As nasty as it is jingoistic, this carbon copy serves as a ringing endorsement to the notion that white men who go against the system will prevail through the power of their egotistical bullshit, restoring order to a broken world. The fact that it happens to be an awfully generic thriller in addition to being fueled by toxic machismo only makes it that much more (ahem) deplorable.

The film begins with the aptly named Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) proposing to his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega) while on vacation in Ibiza. In the midst of grabbing celebratory drinks at the bar, the resort is suddenly overthrown by terrorists, who mercilessly mow down everyone in their path with automated weapons. Running back to the beach, Mitch watches as Katrina is horrifically gunned down before he takes a shot to the leg and another in the back.

It's one of the most exploitative opening sequences I've seen from a mainstream movie in years. Reveling in sadistic carnage committed by Middle-Eastern stereotypes is bad enough, but using it as the catalyst for our white, male protagonist's call to action makes it even worse. Considering the newly enforced Muslim ban, along with the recent wave of white supremacist movements emerging throughout the country, it would be an understatement to say this all left a sour taste in my mouth.

Cut to eighteen months later where a fully recovered Rapp, now sporting a shaggy haircut, an even shaggier beard and a new six-pack, has turned his apartment in Providence, Rhode Island into a personal dojo. Driven by his bloodlust to assassinate Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed), who led the massacre, he's eventually recruited by the C.I.A and placed in a training program run by hardass Cold War-veteran, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Before long, Rapp and a team of black ops are on the move to stop a terrorist known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), an old pupil of Stan's who's stolen a large amount of plutonium from a Russian facility.

What ensues is a tired, all-too-familiar string of spy tropes that mainly serve as bridge work to the film's dull, gratuitously violent action sequences, each of which has the exact same formula: Both parties shoot at one another, and if they miss, they start throwing fists before eventually drawing blades that end up either in someone's neck or abdomen.

Ultraviolence can be done well if it strikes the proper tone, as proven with "John Wick: Chapter 2" from earlier this year, in which the brutality was elegantly choreographed through long, extended takes and felt contained within its own stylized universe. The combat in "American Assassin" is stale because there's no hint of any style at all. The bodies are often framed through static medium-shots or "what am I looking at?" close-ups, and there's a complete lack of chutzpah to how they've been spliced together in the editing room. On top of that, every blow is punctuated through splotches of digital bloodshed, making these set pieces all the more artificially graphic.

Unbeknownst to me beforehand, this film is based on a novel titled "Consent to Kill," the first entry of the Mitch Rapp-centered series written by the late Vince Flynn. Perhaps he had a more compelling persona in paperback form, but this film depicts Rapp as an unhinged little shit, who doesn't obey a single goddamn order from his superiors. O'Brien does his best, but he's badly miscast here. He's far too young and far too pretty, to be playing this highly skilled gunman, who comes off like a douchey beach bro before feebly transforming into a pale imitation of every grief-stricken hero within the spy genre.

As for the rest of the cast, Keaton is the only person trying to have any fun, nearly going full-Beetlejuice during one scene where his character is savagely tortured. (He seems to be aware that this material is very, very dumb.) Poor Taylor Kitsch continues his streak of picking bad projects by playing an antagonist who happens to be just as whiny, and one-dimensional, as O'Brien's titular assassin. The film also doesn't seem to be aware of the irony that Kitsch, a white man, is deadlier than any foreign adversary; they'd prefer to imply that his anarchic tendencies stem from daddy issues with Keaton.

The female characters are either treated with utter disdain or suffer violent ends. Sanaa Lathan and Shiva Negar play two members of the C.I.A. who are given little to do since they're almost immediately stripped of their agency; Lathan is constantly berated by her male colleagues, while Negar is beaten, strangled and nearly drowned (by one of the "good guys," no less). And if that's not enough to convince you of the film's abhorrent gender politics, a villain's mistress, who's on screen for maybe all of two minutes, exists for the sole purpose of being topless before getting shot in the chest by O'Brien.

If American Assassin was made by a bunch of hacks, it might be easier to brush off. Considering that it's directed by Michael Cuesta, who made the disturbingly provocative "L.I.E." and would later go on to direct some of the best episodes of "Dexter" and "Homeland," it fills my heart with despair. Even more jarring is that one of the script's four co-writers happens to be Edward Zwick, whose previous films, such as Blood Diamond and Glory, nearly bludgeon you to death with their unabashedly liberal themes.

By contrast, "American Assassin" seems to be targeted towards everyone else on the other side of the political spectrum. The protagonist doesn't have an arc, or learn any message at all; he simply rebels against any form of logistical reasoning through emotionally driven impulses, which the film argues is always the correct initiative to take when faced against a higher power. Not only does this ideology make for bad entertainment, it draws queasy parallels as to how it's being adapted in the real world, especially in regards to how the man currently inhabiting the Oval Office rose to power in the first place.