There’s a fine line between good bad or fun bad and just plain bad. A bad that’s plodding and self-serious, although a movie’s lack of self-awareness can sometimes boost it into good bad. American Assassin is just plain bad.
Among the litany of problems with the movie is the main character Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien). Rapp is among the few survivors of a terrorist attack at the beach resort. He is vacationing with his girlfriend/soon to be fiance Katrina (Charlotte Vega). After proposing to Katrina, the terrorists appear with automatic weapons. What follows is a disturbing mass shooting that wants to be both effective and cool but fails at both.
It fails because the publicity department of American Assassin has shown this scene countless times in trailers and television ads. Once we see the beach, we know what scene is coming. The other reason it fails is that we live in a culture in which mass shootings and terrorist attacks are not as rare as they should be. So when the movie tries to be hip about it, we bristle at its own shallow callousness.
Rapp survives and proceeds to devote his life to hunting down terrorists. He grows out his beard, works out, studies the Koran, and even gets a flexible keyboard, just so we know how serious he is. He’s so good he’s infiltrated a terrorist cell online and is close to being recruited. How Rapp can do all this without a job, or family, both his parents are dead, American Assassin never tells us.
He’s a blank slate but unfortunately so is O’Brien. O’Brien is much too young for a role of this caliber or at least he looks too young. I was never able to take him seriously as he’s surrounded by actual grown-ups. His disdain for the establishment or for authority, in general, came off as pouty and whiny more than any kind of rebelliousness. It’s in a movie like American Assassin where we begin to mourn the loss of the ‘Hollywood action star.’
Allen Darrah, an old friend, once said, “There has never been anything before or since, quite like Arnold Schwarzenegger.” That quote played in my mind while watching O’Brien stomp across the screen like a petulant middle schooler. This is a movie that would have benefited from the likes of Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis. Movie stars have to be larger than life. When the assistant director of the C.I.A. Irene (Sanaa Lathan) tells Agent Hurley (Michael Keaton) that “He tests off the charts. I’ve never seen anything like it.” We groan at the laziness of the script.
We groan because we’re expected to just accept this as fact. But O’Brien doesn’t have the charisma or the ability to make us believe it for a single second. Movie stars make us believe them by virtue of lines like “He’s tested off the charts!” With actors like O’Brien you demand they re-test him.
Eventually, the potentially super rogue agent is sent off to super rogue agent school where he meets Stanley Hurley played by the wonderful Michael Keaton who deserves a better movie. Then again so do we. Keaton has a wonderful physicality to his performances. Notice how he comes down the stairs to greet Rapp; the odd little bit of half a dance he does. Keaton is ever present no matter the performance, and he can lift up any material given to him.
Later on, when Hurley has been captured and he’s being tortured by the bad guy “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), there is a beautiful Keaton moment. If you do happen to see this movie keep an eye out for this scene. Keaton’s famed wild eyes and manic grin come out in full force as he withstands a bizarre interrogation scene. It’s one of the few times where the director Michael Cuesta finds the perfect balance between showing enough but not too much for maximum effect. It’s the script that almost kills the scene.
The script by committee has saddled him with nothing to lift. These are stock characters in a stock plot. Had there been something on the page maybe O’Brien wouldn’t have come across as such a wet blanket. The script wants to be about Rapp’s journey, but he never goes anywhere. No one does. Things happen, and people die, but it’s never clear why any of it should matter. Although credit, where credit is due, the scene where Hurley tells Rapp to throw the nuclear device into the ocean was a pretty well-done scene. The explosion causes a tsunami-like something out of Cameron’s Abyss.
Cuesta isn’t an incompetent director. He hasn’t yet figured out what works for television and what works for the movies. There’s a scene early on where Rapp and Hurley are speaking. Cuesta shoots the scene in a series of what’s called ‘over shoulder’ shots. It’s a type of framing you often see on television. The camera is placed behind one character’s shoulder. This is so one character has his back to you while the other character is facing us. At some point, it became almost dizzying as the movie kept cutting between the different over the shoulder shots. It distracted from Keaton and O’Brien’s performance.
I know everybody hates lens flares, American Assassin has those as well, but the movie goes one step further. During the shootouts, if a character was shot and they were near the camera, blood would splatter on the lens. It’s an aim at realism in a movie that hasn’t tried to be realistic from the first frame. This is the type of movie where our hero drives a car into a tunnel filled mystery pipes. He mows down a hand full of bad guys and then climbs out just before the car explodes into a fireball killing all those in a nearby radius. How did he know Hurley wasn’t nearby? Or his Iranian counterpart Annika (Shiva Negar)?
There are a few things work, but overall American Assassin can’t escape from under the groaning weight of its inchoate script. Characters spend almost the entire run time complaining to other characters about Rapp. He’s a ‘loose cannon, ’ or he’s ‘brilliant but he doesn’t follow orders.’ The rest of the time they are furious that he’s a ‘loose cannon’ and that ‘he’s brilliant but doesn’t follow orders.’ American Assassin isn’t so bad as to be entertaining but it’s also not good enough to be enjoyable. It’s just bad, bad, bad, bad.