These days, it’s almost difficult to remember that terrorists used to be the most common action movie villains around. The ’80s and ’90s filmmakers who relied on that trope weren’t attempting to be political. Terrorists were just the easy bad guy targets of action heroes blowing stuff up real good. Today, any action movie hinged on terrorism walks a tricky political tightrope that needs to be handled sensitively. ‘American Assassin’ wants to be a serious movie that just happens to feature terrorist-bashing action set-pieces. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t deliver on that promise and the result is as tasteless and tacky as it is explosive.
‘Maze Runner’ star Dylan O’Brien plays Mitch Rapp, a guy who’s really damn good at killing terrorists. A prologue shows us that his magical engagement to his beautiful girlfriend was spoiled when a bunch of terrorist jerks shot up the beach. He then spent an untold amount of time (enough to grow a sweet beard at the very least) training himself to be a killing machine. He infiltrates a terrorist cell pretending to be a disciple in the hopes of murdering a terrorist, like, super hard. Unfortunately, right as he’s about to get to that terrorist killin’, the CIA bursts in and murders the terrorists dead instead. Mitch is furious, but Sanaa Lathan’s CIA honcho is so impressed that she instantly signs the kid to her super-secret CIA kill squad.
First, Mitch has to train to be a super sweet terrorist assassin. He’s assigned to a terrorist-killing boot camp run by top terrorist killer Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). If there’s a reason to see this gross excuse for an action movie, it’s Keaton’s performance. He snarls and commands the screen with as much macho posturing as his small frame can muster and delivers a damn amusing badass. When he bites off someone’s ear while he is being tortured, it’s magical macho fantasy stuff. But I digress. Keaton is great, but mostly a plot device to train Mitch to kill the ultimate terrorist. In a weird twist of fate, that’s Taylor Kitsch playing a former member of Stan’s team who went rogue and now uses everything the master taught him to work for the dark side. Even worse, he’s putting together a nuke to strike back at the good ol’ U S of A.
‘American Assassin’ will undoubtedly get cheers in certain parts of the country where its simplistic moralization of major political issues will seem like the way things ought to be. Had the movie been made decades ago, it might even have seemed like a reasonable work of gritty political paranoia mixed with some pretty explosions. Right now, it’s hard to watch the ugly display without feeling icky. There isn’t a single non-American on-screen who isn’t in some way a terrorist. Worse, those characters aren’t even given personalities. They’re just evil brown people who need to be killed because they worship the wrong magic book and hate America. While this might work well as propaganda in America, it will likely work even better as propaganda elsewhere. After all, this multi-million dollar cartoony display of American righteousness will be exported as a commercial property and could easily be read as proof of all the worst aspects of U.S. foreign policy and xenophobia. Obviously, no one involved considered that.
Well, that’s not fair. They did. This movie is supposed to on some level show that violent terrorist-killing tactics only spawn more terrorists. The message is just delivered in such a messy way that it barely registers. This is ultimately a dumb-dumb macho fantasy where American dudes get strong to kill anti-American dudes because that’s what America is all about. Sadly, it’s not even a fun macho fantasy. The action scenes are massive and silly, but presented in a way that’s supposed to feel real and gritty. That never registers. It mostly just seems more ridiculous.
With the right B-movie tone, ‘American Assassin’ could have been fun and/or campy. Executed like this, the movie leaves far too much of a sour taste in the mouth to deliver any fun. It’s mostly just bombastic trash pretending to be nationalistic art.