As the protagonist of Vince Flynn's best-selling series of counter-terrorism thriller novels, Mitch Rapp was born as a logical offshoot of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, a character who's continued to emerge as more youthful in each new cinematic incarnation. Both men work with the C.I.A., but where Jack Ryan is measured and intelligent, Rapp is brash and impulsive—a twentysomething renegade who carries even more emotional baggage than Bruce Wayne. Not only did Rapp lose his parents in a car crash when he was 14, but his fiancée, Katrina, was killed by terrorists within hours of his proposal to her. In Michael Cuesta's American Assassin, all of this young man's manufactured trauma gives way to a lot of overly mannered brooding and righteous indignation that swiftly threatens to weigh down the film with its overbearing turgidity.
After opening with the carnage that leads to Katrina's (Charlotte Vega) death, Cuesta immediately plunges Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) down an endless rabbit hole of revenge and despair. A few brief, clunky montages make us privy to his burgeoning martial arts skills along with his fluency in Arabic and vast knowledge of the Quran, all of which he's managed to acquire in the two years since he lost his betrothed. Once he sets out on a solo mission to infiltrate an ISIS-like terrorist cell to take out his sworn enemy, he catches the eye of Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), a high-level C.I.A. agent who sees his potential despite a lengthy history of vigilante justice and emotional instability. In the world of the film, this not only makes Rapp a potential candidate for the C.I.A., but apparently someone to be fast-tracked into the most critical of missions.
It’s impossible to take it seriously as anything other than an Abercrombie & Fitch ad posing as a political thriller.
As with the sequence depicting him refining his skills on his own, Rapp's training with legendary C.I.A. agent and tactical fighter Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) moves at an alarmingly rapid pace. Nary a few minutes pass between Stan throwing his underling to the ground with a knife to his neck and Rapp charging into the field to retrieve stolen Russian plutonium that's being sold to Iranians. But before this plot of potential nuclear warfare ever takes off, Cuesta makes it clear that these global machinations, which could lead to the start of World War III, remain hazily in the background in favor of servicing both Rapp's egocentric revenge fantasy and Stan's eventual showdown with a former student, Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who's been radicalized.
American Assassin's overplayed, undercooked narrative plays out in the most unsurprising ways from here, managing the difficult task of globe-hopping from D.C. to Istanbul to Rome while following the unfolding of a Middle Eastern terrorist plot and still making the story all about the emotional and professional hang-ups of three white dudes. Throughout, characters continually prattle on about how proficient and lethal both Rapp and Ghost are, but the film too rarely offers them the opportunity to show it for themselves. And because Rapp and Ghost are played by such attractive but nondescript performers, it's impossible to take the film seriously as anything other than an Abercrombie & Fitch ad masquerading as a political thriller.
But American Assassin's deepest failings lie in a screenplay that's so overly deterministic that it leaves no room for subtleties in its characterizations or possibilities for the narrative to unfold in unexpected, intriguing directions. This is a paint-by-numbers thriller that remains too slight and toothless, more concerned with affectation than authenticity, to make its protagonist feel heroic or its villains threatening. For a film where the entire world is in peril, its insistence on focusing on the comparably insignificant internal struggles of its leads makes much of it play out with startlingly low stakes.