‘American Assassin’ is surprising in a lot of ways, the fact it’s not totally awful being the most unexpected. An action spy thriller with a teen heartthrob in the lead role sounds like all the ingredients for another schlocky mess of a film that only a tween super fan could derive enjoyment from. Thankfully that’s not the case here as the first, horrifically brutal, scene makes very clear, ‘American Assassin’ is Dylan O’Brien trying to break out of the mould he’s been casted in. While this objective certainly is admirable it doesn’t automatically make ‘American Assassin’ good and unfortunately the film does stumble a tad too frequently for anything other than a passing recommendation but there’s no denying the film is far more ambitious than perhaps anyone was expecting.
What is most shocking about ‘American Assassin’ is just how violent it is, make no mistake about it the film earns its adults only rating. This isn’t a spy thriller akin to Bond or Bourne in which hundred die but the hero never gets his hands bloody, here O’Brien shoots, stabs and strangles his way through several countries with all of it shown in full detail. Thankfully there’s a sense of weight to the violence, each kill feels impactful and meaningful rather than fun or joyful. There is however one scene in the film’s third act that feels too sadistic and goes past the point of grotesque impact and more towards the remit of torture porn which is disappointing as up till then the film never revels in its violence streak.
Dylan O’Brien, who has earned himself a fan base similar to that previously enjoyed by Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson, is decent here. His character is more than a little cliché, being a wild maverick scarred by his past that refuses to follow the rules, but he does a serviceable job of anchoring the film. He lacks charisma or anything to really set him apart however which does stop you from ever getting truly invested in his plight. The same can be said of Michael Keaton, who plays his rough and hardnosed mentor (another well-worn character archetype) who while pleasingly gruff throughout lacks any of the personality needed to make an impression on the audience. Rounding out the cast is Taylor Kitsch, who deserves credit for manging to overact a dramatic swing from his usual habit of chronic underact, good job Taylor!
There’s nothing wrong with not having a snarky wise cracker at the centre of a film, in fact such a character would probably feel at odds with the realistic violence of ‘American Assassin’. However what is a problem is how mundane the plot on offer is, though granted it does eventually graduate pass mundanity into ridiculously goofy territory complete with an evil scheme to denote a nuclear bomb (another genre cliché). Each development feels clearly sign posted and each supposedly shocking revelation or twist is laughably predictable, it all results in an overall narrative that isn’t especially satisfying or very compelling.
It could have been much worse isn’t particularly strong praise, and it probably won’t be a quote that Lionsgate will want to slap on the DVD cover, but it does sum ‘American Assassin’ up. If director Michael Cuesta had not employed such a tight grip on proceedings, pacing the film well and making each action moment feel grounded and impactful then this could have been just another generic action spy thriller with nothing going for it. As it stands ‘American Assassin’ is a very flawed action spy thriller that deserves credit for being audacious in areas that many wouldn’t.
Score - 6.0