In order for an action movie to be truly recommendable, it needs to do something different. It doesn’t need to be completely novel, but in a world where there will almost always be an alternative playing at the same theater, there needs to be something to help it stand out. “American Assassin” fails at this, as it lacks any of the wit, style or story elements that would help to set it apart.
It’s not that “American Assassin” is a bad movie. The action is crisply edited and choreographed well, and while it won’t be the best performance Michael Keaton (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”) gives this year, he’s a fun presence. That’s about all that can be said for it, though, as the movie spends most of its runtime rehashing the same plot points that make up 95 percent of these types of movies.
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, “Deepwater Horizon”) spends his days hunting down terrorists after the death of his fiancée. He is recruited by a crotchety mentor figure (Keaton) to join an elite team of soldiers who do the kind of work that lets at least one character make a speech about how morality isn’t always black and white. Mitch is reckless, but dammit, he gets results. He gets the chance to prove himself after a presumed dead former member of his team, Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, “True Detective”) gets his hands on a nuclear bomb and plans to use it to get back at the team that left him behind. All that’s missing are the instructions to rinse, change the names and repeat.
Perhaps if the characters had felt fresh and the performances exciting, it would have been easier to overlook this bland plot, but apart from the aforementioned Keaton, there’s little memorable in this department either. Rapp was apparently so scarred by the death of his fiancée that he lost his personality and the ability to speak in anything but genre clichés (“We kill people who need to be killed”). His team’s direct superior at the CIA (Sanaa Lathan, “Now You See Me 2”) is really only there to give him someone to disobey. The villains — Ghost and clan — not only barely get names and motives, but so much of their dialogue consists of insults towards America that it’s almost like they know there’s an audience of diehard ‘Muricans watching and looking for an easy reason to hate them.
The one thing that can be said to be truly noteworthy is the action. The introductory action scene — dominated by a visceral tracking shot — is never matched by any of the action in the rest of the movie and is undoubtedly fun in the moment. O’Brien doesn’t get much to do here as an actor, but he ably handles the complex choreography of the hand-to-hand combat and other more physical scenes. His work during the climax in particular shows an ability to work with his environment that few action stars possess.
But when two of the action scenes — neither of which will likely prove memorable beyond the end of the month — are the only parts of a nearly two hour movie worth talking about, it doesn’t bode well for the film. Sadly, “American Assassin” lacks the substance to make it anything worth seeing. It doesn’t have the personality of Bourne or the style of Wick. It lacks Bond’s wit or Hunt’s excitement. Perhaps most importantly, “American Assassin” lacks all of the above in comparison to “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and with that movie’s sequel opening next week, it may be best for action movie junkies to save their dollars for the next round.