Sometimes, you have to take a break from the franchise that launches you as a massive movie star – or, at least, what you intend to launch you as a massive movie star, built on the adoration of your fanbase from your long-running television show. Dylan O’Brien, known for Teen Wolf and The Maze Runner, took on the role to further prove that he was an A-List leading man in Hollywood. Whether or not he was successful in that endeavor really is up to your personal preference. I enjoyed his performances before American Assassin and I have enjoyed his performances after American Assassin.
Based off of the novel by Vince Flynn (kind of, it takes some characters and ideas, but no general storyline), O’Brien plays Mitch Rapp who, while on vacation with his disposable girlfriend, she is disposed of in record time. She will not be the last woman in this storyline who is introduced and disposed of to further the storyline of a male character – but, considering the book had much more information on the character upon which Katrina Harper (Charlotte Vega) was adapted from before dying, it’s a telltale sign of a larger issue in all forms of media. Far too often, women in books, television, and movies are given little (or no) characterization outside of being the main character’s love interest, family member, or nominal friend who then promptly dies to push them off onto the main storyline. If you can name more than ten films where the reverse is true for main characters who are female, whose male love interest, family member, or friend die to serve the plot and have no further characterization, I’m waiting with bated breath. I specify with “no further characterization” because several films fit the bill, rarely do we see a character with little to no… character, dying to serve the plot of a female lead.
For the most part, American Assassin is one of those movies where you can sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch the action unfold, pinpoint specific narrative beats or distinct plot points without much issue or depth, and just enjoy. But the reason that this film was not a commercial blockbuster is that reason. The depth could be there if only more attention to detail and care were put in. The film is fun, enjoyable, serviceable, and rewatchable. Because very little of it is memorable. The cookie-cutter aspects – dead girlfriend, terrorist threat, personal vendetta, dramatic action finale – have been done better in other films, funnier films, and deeper films.
This is not to say that American Assassin is a bad film, it acknowledges its flaws and tries to address them in a meaningful way. Katrina is the reason for Mitch to hunt down the terrorist who plotted the attack where she died. She forms an emotional connection for Mitch that could have been used to deeper the thematic elements of the film. The disgruntled mentor, chastened by his failure to prevent his former protégé from turning to the dark side is eminently portrayed by Michael Keaton – his character, Stan Hurley, is a riot on screen, proving that a good time was had on set.
In another of his long run of supporting roles is Taylor Kitsch as the villain of the film, Ghost, who is… a bad guy. He plays the opposite to Mitch Rapp – the older, grittier version who is disillusioned with everything he was taught and then left behind when he was of no further use. His motivation is lackluster in that it has no true personal stakes – he’s not targeting the organization itself that abandoned him, he barely antagonizes those involved in it unless they directly confront him, and he falls prey to the typical flaws of a villain that are easily exploited by the protagonists. His target, the US military-industrial complex has some merit in how his character was designed, but they weren’t the organization that left him behind. The CIA and, by extension, Hurley, are what left him behind when he failed to escape. He wasn’t abandoned while he was a Navy SEAL, he was abandoned while he was a weapon forged by the CIA.
With a little more time to contemplate the deeper meanings of this story, those issues could have been further addressed and given more significance. More weight. Imagine a version of this story where Ghost’s plan is the exact same but acts solely to set up his real plan – to attack the organization that left him for dead. The same beats could be hit – he captures and tortures his mentor, he has a long, drawn-out battle with his opposite, and he dies on the water as he always planned.
One major standout was Irene Kennedy (played by Sanaa Lathan), whose no-nonsense approach to her job against the snarky, more involved Stan Hurley, allowed for a wider appreciation of the world in which American Assassin exists. She sees Mitch’s potential well before Hurley can, and while she ends up exasperated with some of his methods, it is impossible for her not to note that those methods are why she chose to recruit him into this experimental program. It was those methods that ended up solving the problem they ended up in and saving the day.
When it comes to adapting a book in Hollywood, there is a difficult question that has to be answered. How do we adapt a book into a film? It’s absolutely impossible to understand how to answer that question (use the book). There is no way to answer that question (use the book). If there were an answer to that question, it must be as elusive as Waldo (use the book). Alas, this adaptation ran up against the same issue that (almost) all adaptations run into, how can we turn this book that we are adapting into a compelling film. I will allow that there are certain aspects of a book that work better as a book, just as there are aspects of a film that work better as a film, and for television as television. Yet, the material is right there. Even if it’s not a word-for-word adaptation, capturing the spirit and intent of the book should be the goal. Right?
Yet, American Assassin missed the mark on that and turned a long-running, deeply thought-out series of books into a generic, cookie-cutter action film. Is it fun popcorn fare? Yes. But it could have been so much more in the long run, and that’s what is truly disheartening about the litany of adaptations throughout the 2010s.