American Assassin: New, younger killing machine is a little green

By Jim Slotek

These are awkward times for action franchises. Matt Damon and Tom Cruise aren’t getting any younger. And particular skills or no, Liam Neeson has indicated he’s done as an action star.

So the search is on for a younger killing machine. Enter American Assassin’s counter-intelligence agent Mitch Rapp (the protagonist of a popular book series by Vince Flynn), played by apple-cheeked Dylan O'Brien (the hero of the apparently-stalled young-adult Maze Runner franchise).

 Dylan O'Brien as Mitch Rapp in American Assassin

Dylan O'Brien as Mitch Rapp in American Assassin

O’Brien cuts a cool figure with a gun, but doesn’t convey enough personality yet to convince us that a billion dollars of box office could ride on his shoulders.

Like the book’s protagonist, Mitch is inspired to turn vigilante by the killing of his fiancé (Charlotte Vega) in a terrorist attack, though this one takes place on a Spanish beach now instead of in the ‘80s. The bloody rampage against people in swimsuits gunned down mid-pina colada is a jarring way to kick-start an action-movie, to be sure.

 Michael Keaton: Teaching-licence to kill

Michael Keaton: Teaching-licence to kill

Obsessed with revenge, he improbably hunts down and infiltrates the network of the bin Laden-like jihadi named Al Mansur (Shahid Ahmed) learning Arabic and Koran passages and everything, unwittingly leading U.S. counter-terrorism forces to that very spot.

Seems Mitch has been under surveillance by a team led by CIA Deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) and an unconvinced trainer-of-killers named Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, who conveys a grimness that suggests he’d make an even better Batman now).

Why so many people would see a potential saviour in a clearly unbalanced young man is a mystery (Mitch is plagued by visions of Al-Mansur superimposed over the face of people he’s about to kill. But then, they apparently have gone down this road before. A mysterious operative named Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who is trying to obtain a nuclear device with the worst intent, turns out to be another young stud Hurley had previously trained. Now, for whatever reason, he has a world-burning hate on for his former teacher from Assassin 101.

(Ironically, a few years ago, Kitsch was supposed to be the new, younger-faced future of action movies, carrying disasters like Battleship and John Carter on his shoulders, fresh from Friday Night Lights. Sic semper gloria mundi).

When the personality is wanting, you find yourself noticing how familiar the explosive and propulsive formula of American Assassin is. At any moment – in Istanbul, Malta, Romania and Rome – the movie could be a lesser Jason Bourne film, or even The Fate Of The Furious.

The point of all the noise, fury and ticking time-bomb, of course, is to set up the fight-to-the-finish between the new young assassin and the previous young assassin gone rogue. This seemed anticlimactic after everything that had already happened.

Under director Michael Cuesta (Kill The Messenger), American Assassin works on the level of a thrill-ride, and has enough semi-plausible international intrigue to not greatly insult your intelligence. As I say, they’ve got that part down to a science. Turn off your brain and it’s another action movie, as good as or better than most.

But Mitch, I’ve seen Jason Bourne. And you’re not him - yet.