Movie Review: ‘American Assassin’: But the Books Are so Good!
Well-written spy novels have always been ridiculously addictive. There’s a related genre now; I call it “operator porn.” It’s not about debonair, James Bond-type, tuxedo-under-wetsuit-wearing spies, but rather wetsuit-wearing, ultra-tough Navy SEALS and deadly Army Delta Force operators.
These genres overlap in the same way the skill sets of spies, assassins, and warriors do, with the same results—bad people get their comeuppance in very satisfying ways.
Author Vince Flynn’s main character, Mitch Rapp, is a CIA black-ops agent, like Jason Bourne. Unlike Bond’s suave spy, who has a license to kill almost as an afterthought, Rapp’s an exclusive hunter-killer of radical Islamic terrorists, so there’s much more ultra-macho operator stuff going on in these books. Think of Rapp as “James Bond-ultra.” Or think of Bond as “Mitch Rapp-lite.” Lately, movies about assassins with a moral compass have ruled the day.
The Rapp series is 14 books long, plus two prequels. I’ve read 11 of them; I keep trying to quit. I tell myself I can’t put them down because they’re seriously well-written, and I’m a writer, so … which is true. They’re addictive because they’re well-written and because—in the same way spec-ops guys join the military to shoot cool guns, drive cool boats, and (as they themselves put it) blow “stuff” up—if you’ve got an iota of testosterone but don’t particularly want a Navy career, at least you can read about it and live vicariously.
Industrial-Strength James Bond
So how’s “American Assassin,” the cinematic introduction to Rapp? Compared to the books, it’s dreadful. But is it a dreadful movie? Not really. It’s definitely popcorn-worthy; it moves, it excites, it’s got tension, and it’s got good-looking people who aren’t the worst actors in the world.
In Dylan O’Brien, Hollywood has scored a young actor who can nail the prequel Mitch Rapp. And who, if the franchise eventually manages to catch fire, can easily mature into the baleful, rugged, tall, dark, handsome, short-fused alpha predator that is the real Mitch Rapp of the series.
How Does One Become an Assassin?
Well, there’s young Rapp, a sweet guy in Ibiza, Spain, attempting a smartphone-filmed, frolicking-in-the-surf marriage proposal to his girlfriend. He is successful. Then terrorists shoot up the beach—her included—and that’s how you become a terrorist-killer. It’s much more convincing in the books.
Eighteen months later, Rapp’s displaying borderline-psycho revenge tendencies in mixed martial arts classes and practicing knife-throwing like a maniac, to the supreme annoyance of his landlord.
Now, the CIA, in scary, big-brother mode, has been monitoring Rapp through dojo-cams and through his computer, scanning for just these tendencies—and entices him with the promise of killing terrorists.
And Then ‘Assassin’ Goes Kaflooey
The movie version totally drops the ball when ex-SEAL and trainer of neophyte CIA spooks-to-be, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), starts training Rapp. In the book, right off the bat, Stan—who can beat the stuffing out of anyone with one hand tied behind his back while smoking a cigarette—gets his proverbial backside handed to him by the young trainee. And we are thus stunned by the megalithic talent of this diamond-in-the-rough assassin-to-be. That’s the book. Is that not addictive? I tell you, it is.
Not here. The script is lame-lame-lame. They butchered at least four perfectly balanced, excellently written, well-planned, ready-made-for-the-movies Vince Flynn books. They Frankenstein-ed them together and came up with this cockamamie, mash-up script.
Actually, you know what? I’m going to forgo the rest of the synopsis. It’s so generic, you’ve seen it a million times. The end of “Assassin” involves America’s Big Navy in a crisis, just like in 2012’s “Battleship,” which at least openly embraced its flagrant nonsense (because aliens were involved).
“Assassin” goes for the same level of overblown spectacle, with an ocean-floor atom bomb’s “ripple-effect” on a Navy battle group. But it takes itself entirely too seriously. All that computer-generated, fake Sturm und Drang, when you’ve got a perfectly written book that’s jam-packed with crackling character-driven drama, is completely unnecessary.
Maybe that’s why they cast Taylor Kitsch, who also starred in “Battleship” and played a mean SEAL operator in 2013’s “Lone Survivor.” Clearly, he’s got good movie spec-ops/military credentials, but his generic baddie (named “Ghost”) falls flat here due to the florid script.
Casting Is Everything
Sanaa Lathan as the CIA assistant director … you can see how it happened—under pressure to fill alternative casting quotas—and she does have something of the book’s Irene Kennedy to her look.
But Lathan’s directed here to be generically conflict-y. The Kennedy of the book is fascinating; she’s a woman with a photographic memory and a world-class, high-stakes poker face who plays in the CIA’s exclusive big-boy league, is never emotionally ruffled, and gives the macho men enough rope to hang themselves with. Lathan cheaply chews scenery.
Keaton’s a master thespian, but while special forces operators can be slight of stature, this role should have gone, hands down, to former-Marine Scott Glenn, who in his early career as an actor was still doing 1,000 situps a day. Keaton has maybe done 10 situps his whole life, looks like. That’s okay, but in film there are some things you just have to be, not just act. That said, despite the bad casting, Keaton still manages to knock it out of the park—which is why it’s not a completely terrible movie.
Meanwhile, O’Brien just needs to work on his tan, tighten up his somewhat mealy-mouthed, slightly odd accent, and pack on some muscle, and he’ll become a fine Mitch Rapp.
Writing and Directing Are Everything or Nothing
Director Michael Cuesta and the four “too many cooks” writers all clearly thought they were better writers than Vince Flynn. Wrong.
Audiences will like the movie better than the critics do. It’s not boring. “Lord of the Rings” was the end-all, be-all of a director capturing a writer’s vision, and while Flynn is no J.R.R. Tolkien and Mitch Rapp is no Gandalf, Flynn’s superb writing craft deserves a director with the vision of a Peter Jackson.
Until they get a director on board who knows good writing when he sees it, avoid the franchise, and read the books instead.
Director: Michael Cuesta
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Taylor Kitsch, Shiva Negar
Running Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 15
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5