You’d think with gifted writers like Stephen Schiff, who wrote “True Crime” and “Lolita,” Michael Finch who penned “Hitman: Agent 47” and “The November Man,” and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz who teamed up for “Defiance” and “The Last Samurai,” that “American Assassin,” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) with “Maze Runner” star Dylan O’Brien, would have rivaled the James Bond movies and the Jason Bourne franchise as an international terrorist thriller. Indeed, a sturdy cast gives their best, particularly Michael Keaton who radiates throughout, while the youthful O’Brien has grown up sufficiently so he appears credible as a vengeful adult. Nevertheless, mediocre scripting sabotages “American Assassin.” The chief problem lies with its bland hero. Cinematic heroes must stand out. As the gung-ho, ‘go-out-and-kill-all-terrorists-and-come-back-alive,’ O’Brien is given little with which to forge a charismatic character. Basically, Mitch Rapp qualifies as an adequate but nondescript hero. The only reason we feel sympathetic toward him is the tragedy involving his fiancée’s death; this incident now fuels his every waking moment. Conversely, as CIA survivalist specialist Stan Hurley who trains black ops agents, Michael Keaton energizes every scene with his brazen bravado. You have fun watching Keaton dominate every scene whether he is shooting at an enemy or withstanding the villain as the latter tortures him. Similarly, as the treacherous villain, Taylor Kitsch is almost as captivating as Keaton. Furthermore, he is the best kind of villain who manages to stay one step ahead of the heroes and keeps surprising us and them. Adversaries like Keaton’s trainer and Kitsch’s terrorist make O’Brien’s Mitch Rapp look like dreary. Happily, “Kill the Messenger” director Michael Cuesta keeps things moving so swiftly that it is possible to overlook the colorless but driven hero. Little of the high stakes plot, however, registers as original. “American Assassin” appropriates characters and predicaments from earlier movies, specifically “Black Sunday” (1977) “The Amateur” (1981), “The Peacemaker” (1997), and “Munich” (2005) where the villains have nuclear warheads.
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is vacationing in sunny Ibiza, Spain, with his beautiful, blonde, bikini-clad girlfriend, Katrina (newcomer Charlotte Vega), when he surprises her with a marriage proposal. Suddenly, murderous Islamist jihadists shatter their happiness and shoot everybody in sight. The terrorists wound Mitch twice, and by the time that he reaches his fiancée, she is dead. Over a year later, Mitch has learned to defend himself with his bare hands, practiced enough with firearms until he can obliterate bullseyes, and learned enough about his Middle-East adversaries so he can infiltrate their cells. Little does our hero know CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan of “Love & Basketball”) has had him under surveillance. Eventually, Mitch tracks down the monster who orchestrated the bloody Ibiza beach massacre, Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed of “Syriana”), to Tripoli, Libya. Mitch has just confronted Al-Mansur when CIA agents barge into the room and blast him. Mitch watches in horror as Mansur dies from a bullet in the head. This doesn’t keep Mitch from stabbing Al-Mansur’s corpse repeatedly until the Americans drag him off the body.
The CIA keeps Mitch on ice for 30 days until Kennedy convinces CIA Director Thomas Stansfield (David Suchet of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”) to allow him to join the Agency. Initially, Cold War veteran and former Navy Seal veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton of “The Founder”) abhors the prospect of training a civilian. Nevertheless, Mitch ranks at the top of his class, despite all of Hurley’s dirty tricks to run him off. The action comes to boil when the Agency learns about the theft of weapons grade plutonium from an off-line Russian nuclear facility. Worse, Hurley recognizes the thief as an ex-CIA agent, referred to as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch of “John Carter of Mars”), left behind to die on a mission. Miraculously, Ghost survived and plans to use the plutonium to construct an atomic bomb. Ghost double-crosses everybody along the way who helped assemble the bomb, and the CIA don’t discover his plan until it is almost too late to thwart him.
If you’ve read Vince Flynn’s bestseller, you’ll know director Michael Cuesta and his writers have scrapped the novel’s plot. Indeed, they have preserved certain scenes, primarily the boot camp and the torture scenes. The plot about Stan’s former student Ghost is a figment entirely of the screenwriters’ imagination. Ghost doesn’t exist in the novel. Instead of a saboteur like Ghost, our heroes in the novel contend with Middle Eastern regimes clashing with each other in bombed-out Beirut. While an entirely different character tortured Stan in the novel, the villain suffers the same fate as Ghost does in the movie. Letting down his guard momentarily, the torturer gives Stan the chance to chew off a piece of his ear. Comparably, Flynn dispatched Rapp and Hurley to Europe to kill an amoral banker who had been investing millions of dollars for the terrorists as well as Russian espionage agents in Moscow. Furthermore, Mitch’s girlfriend didn’t die on the beach in Flynn’s novel. Instead, she died aboard the doomed Pan Am flight 103 that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. Mind you, sticking Mitch and his fiancée together on the same beach gives our protagonist greater incentive to embark on a “Death Wish” style revenge spree since he witnessed her death. Obviously, staging the beach massacre was easier than generating a CGI model of the Pan Am jetliner exploding. In Flynn’s novel, Mitch didn’t experience his girlfriend’s death first-hand as his cinematic counterpart. Most of the last part of the novel occurred in Beirut where terrorists abducted Stan, and Mitch launched a rescue mission. The grand finale in the film occurs in the Atlantic, and Ghost is playing for far higher stakes than his villainous counterparts in the novel. Altogether, Schiff, Finch, Zwick, and Herskovitz have done an exemplary job of ramping up the action, and Mitch displays greater initiative in his efforts to complete his mission. Although competent and fast-paced, “American Assassin” is still far too derivative to be memorable.