American Assassin tells the story of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) who, after losing his fiancé, studies under veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to exact justice on those who wish to do harm to America.
Based on the novels by Vince Flynn, American Assassin is a fairly typical military thriller story. I’ll admit that I came for Dylan O’Brien without anything more than basic knowledge of the source material. I can’t speak to the movie in terms of the quality of its adaptation of the series, but I can speak to the quality of the film as a whole.
It wouldn’t be right to start off this review talking about anyone other than O’Brien. For those familiar with his rise to stardom, you’ll know that O’Brien’s journey has thus far been a short, albeit successful one, and there’s a long, promising path ahead of him. Starting with a (then) little show called Teen Wolf, O’Brien has had a few successful projects under his belt before hitting on the YA adaptation Maze Runner, which solidified his role as a young up-and-comer.
All of this eventually led to his acceptance of the lead role in American Assassin, despite an accident on the third Maze Runner film, Death Cure, in which O’Brien needed both physical and psychological healing before he felt marginally comfortable enough to jump into a role such as this.
And O’Brien jumped into it with all his being. Mitch’s story is a traumatic one. Mere minutes after proposing to his girlfriend, he watches as she’s gunned down by terrorists on a beach in Spain. He then commits the rest of his life to training, infiltrating their cell, and bringing down the men responsible for such a violent act.
He is cut short just before he is able to complete his mission. The CIA could very well have locked him up for the rest of his life (what he did wasn’t exactly legal, after all), but instead the Deputy Director of the CIA (Sanaa Lathan) recruits him into a special Black Ops unit, led by Keaton’s Hurley.
Mitch is not a particularly likable character. He’s a loose canon, prone to rash decisions that have the potential to get him and those around him killed. His saving grace is the fact that he’s extremely qualified, which means he’s more than capable of taking care of himself. If he weren’t able to complete the mission, this would be a completely different story and Mitch would just be another out-of-control operative.
O’Brien has discussed his own anger over the accident on the Death Cure set and how that allowed him to step into Mitch’s shoes more easily. You can see the anger and relentless determination in his eyes as he trains and goes after each one of his targets.
For those who have seen O’Brien in his other roles, you’ll know Mitch Rapp is a departure from the norm. He’s playing an adult in an adult role, someone who has witnessed real tragedy and is finding his own way of coping with it. There’s no awkward coming of age, no first kiss, no transition into the real world here. O’Brien has firmly stepped into a major Hollywood role and carries that burden on his shoulders with apparent ease.
That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re starring opposite Michael Keaton, but O’Brien holds his own. I would easily watch a film centered around Stan Hurley’s character. Keaton plays him with a cool confidence, but with enough emotional availability that he’s still relatable. You root for him even when he’s the one standing in the way of Mitch’s goals.
Lathan’s Irene Kennedy was a surprising standout. Her faith in Mitch, despite his constant rebellion, doesn’t seem all too realistic, but seeing a woman of color in such an important position within the CIA, one whose opinions are respected, shouldn’t be overlooked. She was never the victim and never the scapegoat. Instead, she led the charge on the case against Ghost with professional efficiency and heart.
The last piece of the puzzle here is Taylor Kitsch’s Ghost, a former protégé of Hurley’s that’s gone off the rails. Again, this is a role we’ve seen plenty of times before, but Kitsch plays it with a calm intensity. His soft, Southern drawl disguises the insanity hiding beneath the surface. The duality of the character is his most interesting quality.
In terms of the action genre, American Assassin gives you everything you’d want out of this type of film, including explosions, car chases, and tightly choreographed fight sequences. You’d never guess that O’Brien has yet to do an action movie of this caliber. The last confrontation between Mitch and Ghost has an added element that further complicates their fight, making it much more difficult and interesting.
American Assassin was a solid first installment in what I’m sure Lionsgate is hoping will be the next major franchise. If Mitch’s character becomes even more relatable and we see a continued exploration of the backgrounds of Kennedy and Hurley, I’d imagine the sequel would be even better.