UK Release Date: 14th September 2017
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Michael Cuesta
Writer: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Scott Adkins
Synopsis: A young man is driven to infiltrate a terrorist cell by the murder of his fiancée and is subsequently recruited to a top secret intelligence unit, where he must learn to channel his anger.
The 18 certificate, once a badge of honour for edgy action fare and gory horror movies, is now a rare sight in UK cinemas. Given the BBFC’s increasingly relaxed approach to what is acceptable within the 15 rating, you need to push some boundaries to end up slapped with the crimson circle. American Assassin is one of just a few films to be landed with the certificate this year, having earned it not with an unflinching and complex approach to action movie violence, but with a gratuitous scene of torture and one of the most insensitive depictions of an all-too-real brand of terrorism ever committed to cinema.
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is devastated when his fiancée is gunned down by terrorists attacking a holiday resort. He spends the next 18 months training for his revenge and infiltrating the cell responsible for carrying out the attack. Before he can carry out his mission, he is picked up by intelligence services. CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanna Lathan) has been observing Mitch and believes he might be an ideal recruit for a highly secretive unit, codenamed Orion and led by grizzled war vet Hurley (Michael Keaton). The unit finds itself on the tail of terrorists in search of a nuclear weapon, with mysterious former Orion operative Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) somehow involved.
This is a film that sets its tone from the first sequence. It begins as an idyllic depiction of a holiday, but immediately descends into horror as a terrorist attack reminiscent of the horrific events in Tunisia in 2015 unfolds. The atrocity is shown via hideously crass, sub-video game visuals that rid every victim of their humanity as they are snuffed out in an instant. American Assassin might have got away with this if it had made some sort of comment on the seriousness of the situation, but it’s merely tossed away as if it’s any other generic action hero origin tale.
Dylan O’Brien could not be less interesting in the lead role. The reasonable charisma he has showed as the lead in the Maze Runner franchise is entirely absent from his work here, which is an unfathomably bad performance. He has a complete lack of chemistry with every single one of his co-stars and is entirely unbelievable as a man with attitude. It’s unclear whether it’s the fault of the casting director who chose O’Brien for the part, or the star himself, but the end result is far from pretty either way.
The only person involved with American Assassin who seems to know what sort of film he’s in is Michael Keaton. He devours the scenery with a fearsome, ferocious performance that’s delivered with tongue placed firmly in cheek. His wolfish grin gets its fair share of outings here, including in a torture scene that’s redeemed almost solely by the fact Keaton delivers his end of the bargain with blood-soaked relish.
It’s a shame that the film is such a disaster as director Michael Cuesta has shown serious flair before. His true life journalism drama Kill the Messenger was a memorable tale of smear tactics and the importance of reporting against the corrupt and powerful, but there’s no such sophisticated moral judgement at play in American Assassin. From the despicable lack of political awareness shown in the opening scenes to the ludicrously overblown nuclear spectacle of the finale, this is a bad taste failure on every level.
Pop or Poop?
American Assassin is a dismal and disturbing action film that uses real-life terrorism as a storytelling device, without any sort of comment on its seriousness. It’s driven by a stunningly terrible Dylan O’Brien performance and culminates with the sort of nuclear nonsense that a Cold War era Bond film would dismiss as overly camp. Avoid this travesty at all costs.
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