The stereotype is that men love action films. That’s not true, everyone regardless of their gender love action movies. There’s a thrill to see a hero take on fiendish villains, blowing everything up in his path on the way to most likely getting the girl. There’s still plenty of stereotypes in these films after all. But we are starting to ask more from our action movies. We want more character from them, we want different plots, we just need something that isn’t just a man with a gun taking on the rest of the world. Is American Assassin something different or just the same old action film?
After Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, Teen Wolf) sees his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega, The Misfits Club) get killed during a terrorist attack, he trains to become a killing machine capable of infiltrating Islamist terror cells. However, the CIA catch him and induct him into Stan Hurley’s (Michael Keaton, Birdman) top secret Orion programme.
The unfortunate thing is that American Assassin is just another bog-standard action film. Tell me if you’ve heard this before. An obviously talented young man who hates authority is sent to a tough training programme run by an older and seemingly uncaring man. While the young hero flouts instructions, he is much better than the throwaway fellow platoon mates and so starts to go on missions with the uncaring tutor. He completes the mission but ignores orders doing so and attracts the ire of the tutor. That’s because he reminds him of the eventual villain, a former student of the tutor who went rogue. Yes, this has been the plot of a million action movies ranging from $100m blockbusters to the ones you buy for a few quid in the bargain bucket at Asda. It’s the biggest failing of the movie because you know every beat of the movie before it’s even happened as you’ve seen it all before.
Bland could be a by-word for American Assassin because the problems with its familiarity aren’t just with its plot. The look of this movie is one that belongs to lots of other serious action films of this vein. It’s that one that’s desperately trying to look gritty and just quite almost achieves it. It goes to places we’ve seen in a lot of other films including Istanbul and Rome, though it doesn’t make the most of the jet setting because it manages to make this amazing, vibrant cities look like miserable flea-bitten slums. There’s nothing especially wrong with the look, it does fit with what they are trying to do. It’s just that we’ve seen it a million times before.
And this blandness continues with the lead character. I don’t think Dylan O’Brien is a bad actor, it’s just that he ends up in these roles where he gets no chance to inject any personality into them. Here he only has one emotion, anger. Sometimes he has very little of it and just has to have a scowl, other times he has a lot of it and has to shout. And that’s pretty much it. He’s just a driven young man fueled by revenge and there’s very little of interest about him.
The actor of course who is an absolute delight is Michael Keaton. You could give him a role as actual wallpaper paste and he would still be the most interesting thing on screen. Like Dylan O’Brien, his character is very boring on paper. He’s a tough mentor type who doesn’t quite trust Mitch because the last student he had like him turned into a terrorist. But because Keaton is just that good of an actor, he brings this character to life and constantly brings every scene he is into life. The man is chewing so much scenery he inadvertently bites the villain’s ear off. Please Hollywood, give Keaton more roles because he makes every movie he is in so much better.
And to the American Assassin, it doesn’t wimp out and fall for a 12A rating just to get more money. Perhaps heartened like so many by the success of Deadpool last year, the movie decides to have a 15 and actually have some brutal, bloody action. And apart from Keaton, it’s some of the most enjoyable stuff in the movie. The action is shot pretty standardly, as you’d expect from this movie considering everything else I’ve said about it, but that blood makes everything a bit more brutal and feels a bit more real. So when Michael Keaton does bite an ear off, you don’t see some rapid cuts, you see a man bite another man’s ear off which makes you flinch because I assume you are a sane human being. That’s how you use blood to improve a film.
I’ve been very harsh on it here, but I can’t say that American Assassin is a bad movie. For however much we’ve seen everything in this movie before, it does do those things right. The plot moves at a fair pace, the action is good and it leads to a ridiculous finale which will probably satisfy you if you know what are you are in for from the start. It’s just that we expect more from action films now. We live in a post-Mad Max: Fury Road world where action films can’t just have some heads turn into red mist and expect everyone to go home happy. You have to do something different and this movie unfortunately does not.