By Jack Dignan
Exposition. Exposition is hard. Exposition can drag. Exposition is often necessary to a story. Exposition isn't film. A movie cannot rely solely on exposition to work. Two hours of people standing around talking doesn't equate to an entertaining night out. Exposition is a nightmare for most writers, and as an aspiring writer myself, I do sympathise with this struggling necessity, but one of the first rules screenwriters learn is to show and not tell. It's a simple rule. Even those who don't know movies know about showing not telling. Rarely are the two able to blend well together. When they do, it's a miracle, but one usually outweighs the other. Or, as is the case for American Assassin, the second option just ceases to exist.
There are sixteen books in the Mitch Rapp series, upon which this film is based. Sixteen. That's a lot of pages. A lot of stories to be told. I've never read them, nor did I know there was even a sequel to the original book I keep seeing all over my local Target, but if a book series has lasted that long, surely they're doing something right. Surely, out of the thousands of trees those books have killed, there's a solid story somewhere. Alas, if there is, it fails to find its way to the big screen. Whatever it was that was translated into American Assassin, the title of the eleventh book released but the first chronologically, it sure as hell doesn't do the popularity of the book justice. Let's just hope those other fifteen books remain out of Hollywood's hands. James Bond, this is not.
Our protagonist is Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien). He's a young man who lost it all after a terrorist attack killed his girlfriend and left him bleeding out on a beach. But what it gave him was a thirst for vengeance, and it's a thirst he's been travelling the world to quench. Mitch has isolated himself. He's focused all his time on his training and attempts at taking down an infamous terrorist leader, but his search gets him in trouble with the law, as led by CIA agent Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). She recruits him into an undercover counterterrorism program, where's he's forced to play by the rules in order to take down a rising terrorist power. Oh, and Michael Keaton is in this thing too, where he gets to shoot guns into the air and yell at trainees for no reason other than to toughen them up. Because... sure, why not?
It needs to be said that the casting in this movie is, without a doubt, its strongest aspect. Of all the primary roles, there's no weak link. Dylan O'Brian brings a lot of sympathy and emotional depth to his character, especially during an intense and unrelenting opening shootout, and he's matched perfectly with Michael Keaton (who I'll get more into in just a moment). Even the occasionally under appreciated/occasionally dreadful Taylor Kitsch gives a solid performance here. None of them are at any fault. They're out here doing their best, attempting to get a new franchise off the ground while yelling viciously into each other's ears. It's just the rest of the film that's complete garbage.
The screenplay proves to be this film's biggest issue, whether it's the aforementioned exposition problem or the fact that it just doesn't know which story threads it wants to follow through with. American Assassin's entire first act mostly consists of a bunch of random dudes in suits either sitting in circles talking, or facetiming another suited dude and taking to them. It's draining to watch. I found myself distracted, with my mind wondering off into other thoughts while these characters, none of who are of any importance, discuss matters that simply do not matter in the end. The terrorism plot is dropped hallway through, in replace of a cat and mouse chase between Taylor Kitch's character Ghost and the anti-terrorism agency.
Heck, even the assassin subplot is dropped. Yes, that's the right. This film is titled American ASSASSIN, and yet there's very little assassinating. There's more spying, taking photos and talking to different dudes in suits than there is action. Granted, the assassin training montage does have some fun moments while it lasts, but it all skims past so fast with virtually no character development whatsoever. Tension and rivalry is constantly set up between Mitch and his fellow trainees, but the supporting characters aren't even given a name. A brief scene in augmented reality shows potential for what this film could've been, but it then decides to spend a quarter of its runtime torturing Michael Keaton's character instead.
There's a whole lot of collateral in the plot with very little set up. For a film jam packed with exposition, they never manage to explain the right things. The entire third act climax makes very little sense until it's too late for you to care. You don't understand what's happening, why characters are doing what they're doing and if it's going to lead to something bad or not. All the clues you get as to why this is important are based solely on the facial expressions of the actors. If they’re shocked, I guess we’re meant to be too. Plus, it doesn't help when the CGI is 90s video game level bad, and the camera work is so poor during the fight choreography that you can't tell the difference between the good dude dressed in black and the bad dude dressed in black.
Worst of all, you just don't care for the characters either, making the 111-minute runtime feel never-ending. Michael Keaton plays a dick for the sake of being a dick. You're meant to hate him, but ultimately learn to love him, yet everyone just forgives him for the sake of forgiving him. It's never earned. He doesn't have an arc, there's just one forced onto him. And for the sake of not spoiling the movie, I won't point out this second character's name, but they were severely underdeveloped in all the worst ways. They go from the good side to the bad side to maybe the good side again but also definitely the bad side, forced to team up with Mitch for a showdown that feels like it should be emotional but certainly is not. Their character infuriated me.
Hollywood is always looking for the next big blockbuster franchise. It's where the big bucks come from. American Assassin, if done properly, could've been just that. It could've been the next Jason Bourne or the next James Bond. Heck, it could even be the supplement between Kingsman films, but it falls apart shortly after it starts. The world deserves better than this. Action movies deserve better than this. This wasn't fun. This was rough.
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