I didn’t believe a single moment in American Assassin. That’s a shame, because it arrives in theaters with a solid pedigree. Based on a prequel in the late Vince Flynn’s popular series of spy novels, its screenplay is credited to Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. Director Michael Cuesta has top television credits like Homeland and Dexter on his résumé, but he started out making terrific indie films like L.I.E. and 12 and Holding.
Then there’s the cast, led by former teen heartthrob Dylan O’Brien, from Teen Wolf and the Maze Runner series. He’s younger than the novels’ Mitch Rapp, perhaps too young to pull off this hard-bitten character—a likable guy who lashes out at the world after a sudden tragedy. The always-welcome Michael Keaton plays his maverick CIA mentor who’s seen it all and trains him to become a cold-blooded killer, bearing in mind that “it’s never personal.” Keaton’s character seems more of a construct than an actual human being. The inventive actor never finds a way to make this guy distinctive or compelling, let alone credible. Sanaa Lathan does what she can as his perpetually exasperated boss and David Suchet is wasted as her dour-looking superior.
Then there’s Taylor Kitsch, who after a bumpy big-screen career in heroic parts is cast as a take-no-prisoners bad guy. He’s a talented actor but this gig does him no favors. Like his costars he can only do so much with a screenplay that feels contrived from start to finish.
The only distinctions of American Assassin are its use of colorful overseas locations, including Malta and the city of Rome, and its distinctive portrayal of hand-to-hand combat. These intimate fight scenes, shot with a hand-held camera, are palpably painful to watch and offer a level of credibility the rest of the movie sorely lacks. An immense special-effects finale falls under that same heading and despite its great ambition, it left me bored.