"American Assassin" Review
With clichéd action film after clichéd action film, the whole ‘bad guys face off with heroes and ruin half of civilization’ plot line has grown as stale as the day-old bakery products at Wal Mart. Honestly, a macho car chase or larger-than-life fight scene in the heart of New York City no longer surprises any crowd (Avengers, Godzilla, anyone?). While falling victim to this trite action archetype, American Assassin manages to go beyond this chestnut and offer stellar acting alongside a refreshing take on casting, setting it above the competition and on its way to becoming the next big action film series.
Leaning on the plot of Vince Flynn’s novel American Assassin, the film follows the relationship of Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, Birdman) and CIA black ops recruit Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, Teen Wolf), both assigned to the investigation of mysterious terrorist attacks. Knee deep in stylistic action violence, the film quickly follows the government’s plan to prevent global war primarily through Rapp’s murderous skill set, all while providing a nail-biting conclusion.
Performing with a ferocity not seen in any of his previous works, O’Brien proves himself worthy of entering the big leagues of action adventure. While it originally appeared that the former MTV actor had initially been hired in an obvious attempt to draw in a larger audience of swooning females, his portrayal of Rapp, the once joyous and now traumatized vengeance-seeker, is so hauntingly magnificent that anyone doubting his talent will be instantly proven wrong. He’s more than just a pretty face; he’s a pretty face that can take life in a multitude of ways.
Paired with O’Brien’s tasteful performance, the lack of a cheesy love story feels refreshing against the all-too-typical romances tucked into most cinematic plot lines. The lack of a hero falling in love with his partner in crime or having steamy sex with some random girl along the way makes Assassin almost one of a kind in an age where majority of movies are overly sexualized. Love, in fact, is completely torn from the plot line - the film didn’t even have the classic father (or significant other) chasing down the villain that kidnapped their loved one only to save them at the last second and bring them into a gargantuan embrace. Sure, the theme of love does play a role in shaping who Mitch Rapp is in the film’s beginning, but that serves as little more than a backstory.
Another refreshing twist lies in the relevance of powerful women of color in the film. Sanaa Lathan plays CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy alongside Shiva Negar, who plays Annika, Rapp’s partner with a dark secret. Both women prove to be confidently devoted to their work, willing to risk anything to see their mission complete. They are constantly met with disapproval by men, allowing them to stand their ground and produce a dignifying feminist message. Hollywood’s inability to hire women, especially those of color, on the scale of white males in action movies usually leaves them in the shadows as minor characters, representing little more than a sexual fantasy or the helpless girl yet to be killed off. Giving women a chance at the action-packed spotlight, following in the footsteps of recent films such as Hidden Figures, hopefully works to create a new status quo in the world of film. Otherwise, we’ll just have to wait for the latest Wonder Woman installment to hit the theaters and somewhat restore our faith in some semblance of equity.
Despite the remarkable cast and its feminist forays, too many aspects of the film remain annoyingly predictable, especially with that clichéd conflict featuring the wise expert who cannot stand the wild youngster’s unconventional ways. It seems as though no action movie can escape this stereotypical duo, this time portrayed by Keaton and O’Brien. Like any stubborn conflict, the tension is birthed in the first moment they meet in none other than the classic government-funded boot camp environment. Constantly butting heads, the duo eventually levels off as they work together and finally reach a civil understanding. This tired trope is augmented by the ‘hidden mole on the team’ scenario. His “miraculous” discovery is too easy as, unrealistically, the spy lets something slip - something which can hardly be practical with the thorough background checks that agents receive in the real world. Furthermore, the “man from the past” character finds his way into Hurley’s side of the story, an old cohort confronting him with vengeance and blaming him for everything that went wrong in his life. No matter how hard the directors, producers, and writers work to create a never-before-seen film, they will always fall back onto the stereotypical and clichéd story line, making every film ultimately one and the same.
The lackluster and plenteous predictability leaves Assassin with little hope of success, only redeemed by the tasteful portrayals of characters and pleasant take on women’s roles in action films. While not breaking free from the artistic prison known as action adventure, the film still manages to at least attempt a jailbreak.