American Assassin is an origin story, and it starts as such at the very beginning. Like many beginnings, it sets a happy scene: Mitch Rapp, played by Dylan O’Brien, romps on the beaches of Ibiza, Spain with his girlfriend — and soon after, fiancee — Katrina, played by Charlotte Vega. Their engagement is short-lived, however. Just moments into the film, Katrina is shot and killed, one victim of many in a brutal terrorist attack.
The attack is swift and shocking — the violence is jarring, in particular, given the dream-like beach setting. It leaves a lasting impression, but it is somehow lacking. Perhaps it was too quick, too senseless, too cliché. Still, it serves its purpose: It sets the mood for the rest of the film and is Rapp’s driving force.
Eighteen months later, we meet the new Rapp: a grizzly version of his former self, fluent in Arabic and a master of martial arts. O’Brien, a favorite of “Teen Wolf” fans and star of the “Maze Runner” film trilogy, pulls off the transition well. Rapp has tracked down and infiltrated the terrorist cell responsible for the erstwhile attack, and his skills have caught the eye of CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy, played by Sanna Lathan. Instead of sending him to jail for his illegal activities or perhaps therapy for his seemingly disturbed psyche, she decides to send him to Stan Hurley, a former Navy SEAL played by Michael Keaton, to teach Rapp how to kill better.
Kennedy is introduced as a central part of Rapp’s new identity as a CIA operative, telling Rapp in a stern, almost motherly tone that she “has faith in [him].” What could have been an intriguing relationship, however, is lost as the story continues: She spends the rest of the film marching around a CIA command center, putting undeserved trust in an agent with no regard for commands. Kennedy’s character is representative of the film’s biggest flaw: A plot device that is scarily effective at moving the story forward, but at times unrealistic and too predictable.
The real star of the film, aside from Rapp himself, is Stan Hurley. Keaton plays Hurley exceptionally well, injecting a much-needed dose of humor into the otherwise somber story. He delivers memorable one-liners that serve as opportunities to laugh at the at-times-ludicrous plot developments.
Most of all, Keaton plays the role outstandingly well alongside O’Brien. He does exactly what a supporting character is meant to do: Contribute meaningfully to the main character’s development while still standing as his own character.
Alongside Keaton’s compelling delivery of Hurley, O’Brien delivers his own engaging performance as star of the film, even when the script limits him to surly expressions and dark conversations about his desire to kill people who “deserve it.” He is charismatic and sexy but is also still the tortured, broken shell of a man who has lost too much to tragedy. O’Brien is also a treat in well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes.
No spy flick is complete without a stunning foreign spy, who comes in the form of Annika, a Turkish agent played by Shiva Negar. Although the stunning foreign spy archetype usually brings to the film a sense of tension and mystery, Annika’s relationship with Rapp is not developed well enough to warrant the screen time it receives.
The team — Rapp, Hurley, Annika and Kennedy — race to stop a dangerous terrorist plot, and the rest of the film plays out like any other superspy story: A hero on a personal mission, a villain with a grudge, friction between teacher and student, betrayal and redemption and, at the center of it all, a top secret mission with global implications.
“American Assassin” is a cliche film, but so are most spy thrillers. To avoid that label, the film needed either to lighten up and embrace its moments of comedy or go even deeper in its exploration of Rapp’s mental state — as it is, it is too serious to be funny but too funny to be serious.
Still, the film has its merits. It is a thriller through and through, jam-packed with impressive fight scenes, and on occasion, scenes of much-needed comedy. O’Brien and Keaton deliver stellar performances, bringing depth to a simplistic plotline and helping audiences connect more deeply with the story of the “American Assassin.”