Wednesday, September 20, 2017

American Assassin: A Review


There are certain things I must say first before I give an honest view of American Assassin, the first film adaptation of  the late Vince Flynn's MITCH RAPP series of spy thrillers.  First, I don't like MITCH RAPP as written by Flynn, who sadly died at the young age of 47 of prostate cancer.  Having read both American Assassin and Act of Treason, I found MITCH RAPP to be one of the coldest, most uninteresting characters committed to paper.  He has nothing to him: no real passions, no real joys, nothing that would mark him as remotely human.

That has always been my issue with MITCH RAPP as written by Flynn, an author I do respect for creating well-paced stories with good, solid twists in them.  MITCH RAPP was always an aloof figure, terribly inhuman.  The film adaptation of American Assassin does not humanize him, but even with own issues with the character, he deserved better than this misfire.

In case you were wondering, I type it as MITCH RAPP because he is such a staccato character: short-tempered, blunt, generally monosyllabic down to his name.  I'll retire that for the plot summary.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) has just proposed to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on the sunny coast of Spain when terrorists storm the beach and start killing people, including Katrina.  18 months after the attack, Rapp is a dissolute young man with a lot of anger issues.  He beats people with far too much strength at his MMA classes, he throws knives at his apartment at pictures of the terrorists who killed his beloved, and somehow, despite being pretty much bonkers he manages to convince those same terrorists that he is a willing member of their jihad.

Exactly how this guy manages to infiltrate their online cell while being able to type in Arabic the film does not answer (and yes, it is possible he knew Arabic prior to that fateful sojourn in Spain, but it is stretching things to think so).

Anyway, he manages to get to Libya where he meets up with that cell, but before he is offed the Americans come to spoil his carefully laid out plans.  After his capture, he is taken to Deputy CIA Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who sees in Rapp a potential recruit to do secret anti-terrorism operations.  Thus she sends him for training (or in Rapp's case, a refresher course) to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a weather-worn ex-Marine whose job it is to train these secret soldiers.

Hurley dislikes Rapp from the word 'go', but he also sees the promise within, if only Rapp would stop treating everything as a prelude to enacting revenge.  Kennedy then throws Hurley, Rapp, and Victor (Scott Atkins) another of Hurley's trainees, into their mission: to recover weapons-grade plutonium apparently sought out by Iranians bent on Israel's destruction.

It's off to Istanbul, where with the aid of Annika (Shiva Negar), an agent for the U.S., they are to get the plutonium.  However, the mysterious figure known as 'Ghost' is on to them, killing Victor as he makes his getaway when making the sale.  Rapp, as is his want, disobeys orders to pursue the Turk involved in this nefarious scheme.  It leads to Rapp managing to climb five floors from the outside, kill the Turk's mistress and guard before killing the Turk.

Hurley is incensed, but Kennedy points out Rapp did get a laptop that gives them information which sweeps them to Rome.  There, we find that Ghost is going to make the sale, but first needs a physicist to help with the weapon.  It's also here that we find Annika is really a double agent...and the niece of Hurley's Iranian counterpart, who himself is assassinated.

It's now a race to get to Ghost and stop him from selling the weapon, but as it turns out, 'Ghost' (Taylor Kitsch) has an agenda of his own.  It's once again up to Mitch Rapp to stop Ghost and save the world, or at least in this case, the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

Perhaps my dislike or rather disappointment with American Assassin is that in this case, I did read the Vince Flynn novel before the movie was made.  As such, I don't understand two aspects of the adaptation.  One, why did the producers find it necessary to have four people adapt the novel?  Two and more important, why did the producers make so many changes to American Assassin as to render it almost unfaithful to both the spirit and the letter of Flynn's origin story to MITCH RAPP (the novel having been written long after Flynn introduced the character)?

In the original novel, MITCH RAPP was a bright Syracuse University student with great athletic skills in lacrosse whose fiancee was murdered in the Pan Am 103 bombing.  As such, he was exceptionally bright, physically strong, and highly motivated by both emotion and patriotism.  As a side note, this might be the only time that I can remember MITCH RAPP having any kind of emotion, but I digress.

The novel also has MITCH RAPP ending his first mission not in Rome, but in the Middle East (Lebanon if memory serves correct, though I won't vouch for that).  He was taking out terrorists, and they weren't Americans, let alone Americans with revenge motivations against Hurley.

In short, I think the changes made to American Assassin from book to screen were so great as to water down the film and make it less than what it could have been if they had stuck closer to the novel.  I figure only those who read the novel would notice; however, in attempting to make it more 'accessible' to those who didn't/hadn't read the novel it took out what made the original a strong thriller.

By making a lot of cliched choices (the 'revenge' motive, using 'Ghost' as an alias when that was the term Hurley used to describe agents killed or captured in the line of duty, throwing in a beautiful femme fatale when MITCH RAPP apparently has little to no desires for pleasures of the flesh or even friendship), it ironically stripped American Assassin from its base and turned it into a substandard action film.

I can't generally fault the casting, though I confess that Adkins, who is killed off quickly and whose name I learned only after he was killed, fit my idea of what MITCH RAPP would look like, more than the muscular but thin O'Brien.  I always pictured MITCH RAPP as square-jawed, muscular, with crisp hair...a bit like Vince Flynn  himself.  Dylan O'Brien, with his facial hair and unkempt hair, was not whom I imagined whenever I read either of the MITCH RAPP books.

It isn't as if O'Brien gave a bad performance.  He's a talented actor who can handle action (The Maze Runner series) though even for an origin film he still looks a bit too young.  Whatever his merits as an actor, the script does him no favors as this version of MITCH RAPP has him come across as genuinely nuts versus the cold straight-shooter who takes nothing from no one and does what he thinks needs doing.

As a side note, that aspect of both American Assassin and the MITCH RAPP series never sat right with me.  Again and again MITCH RAPP would disobey orders and do something that would anger his superiors only to get no reprimand because his actions, as legally dubious or unauthorized were, inevitably gave results.

A major sin is in how it misuses or underuses several actors.  If your film has the benefit of someone like David Suchet, why relegate him to a few scenes?  Same goes for Lathan, who like Suchet appears to have been directed by Michael Cuesta to do little more than look worried or snap at someone.

Another side note: Irene Kennedy knows about MITCH RAPP coming in contact with this terrorist cell, which the CIA has been unable to crack, down to monitoring him with hidden cameras at MITCH RAPP's apartment.  Apart from the wild idea that a civilian could do something the CIA with all its resources couldn't, why Kennedy would let such a loose cannon as MITCH RAPP continue to run roughshod over everything and everyone is never explained.  At least in the novel, she has been observing him while he was a student at Syracuse, which is more logical that the film.

Keaton is swallowing his scenes whole as Hurley, and poor Kitsch (who in another world might have been a better version of the young MITCH RAPP) is stuck doing his version of a low-rent James Bond villain (as if he were the younger American cousin to Christoph Waltz's Blofeld from SPECTRE).

There are good things in American Assassin that might have made it passable: a training sequence involving holograms in particular was a standout.  It's unfortunate though that so much of American Assassin was wasted on a variation of MITCH RAPP.  Rather than the cold, ruthless man with a mission, American Assassin served up a variation of Jason Bourne who is slightly if not totally bonkers and emotionally compromised at every turn.  In the novels, perhaps you can cheer on someone like MITCH RAPP, who gets the job done and never wavers from it even if reason or emotion would suggest otherwise.  In this film, it is harder to cheer on someone who lives up to what Hurley tells him, "You follow orders when it suits you," showing someone more arrogant and reckless than determined.

It is possible a series might be squeaked out by American Assassin, but it needs newer production standards and more faithfulness to the Flynn novels, or we might find this hoped-for franchised is all MITCH RAPP-ed up.



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