With American Assassin, Michael Cuesta explores nuclear war in the most outdated fashion possible.
There’s something to admire about Michael Cuesta’s American Assassin, albeit somewhat ironically. This is a movie out of time, a relic of Hollywood’s past shuffled forward to the present without planning or coordination. It’s a story a faithful student of Steven Seagal might’ve wanted two decades ago, but with Steven Seagal instead of Michael Keaton. It feels so antiquated one might be amazed to see it made at all, and yet here it is, proud as a featherless peacock.
It begins decently enough, with a thunderous terrorist attack on an idyllic beach. Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) has just proposed to his fiancée, then she is gruesomely gunned down. Bent on revenge, Mitch takes the only logical step: murder the leader of the terrorist cell himself by taking up martial arts classes and feigning loyalty to the radical caliphate. Uh huh…
His moves are observed by Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), deputy director of a covert organisation of assassins known as Orion. She hacks his webcam, spies on his chats and paces around one of those secure agency rooms that looks like computer screens have taken over the world with pie charts and graphs. Irene, too, takes the only logical step: Recruit Mitch for her program. Why? Because “I’ve tested them all and he can do things no one else can”. Uh huh. Does anyone else see the crime in using a poor kid’s grief and revenge as weapons for the US government?
This, I suppose, is only the premise, and I think it’s more than what you need to know. The rest involves warring nations, double-crosses and nuclear bombs, which made me think of North Korea, and that, maybe, the plot might have some contemporary relevance. But nothing about Cuesta’s execution supports this notion. His movie is so devoid of energy and so stagnant that even the action sequences seem to unfold in reverse. There is not a word of dialogue with the impetus to develop character. Every line services the plot and nothing else. This is the kind of movie that would work as an academic essay.
There are gunfights and car chases, torture scenes and training montages, fist-fights and a fleet of American warships. And also an explosive crescendo that boasts some of the shoddiest CGI work of recent times. Somewhere in all this is Keaton, who plays a former Navy SEAL like it’s a career-defining audition. He goes balls-to-the-wall and, in a pivotal scene, completely smashes up against it. Keaton’s best when he’s gloomy and brooding, like Bruce Wayne, not when he’s the 21st Century version of R. Lee Ermey.
I think I can appreciate what this film is trying to accomplish, but in an era where the Mission: Impossible and James Bond movies continue to employ new tricks to remain relevant, American Assassin is like that old clown who still thinks balloon animals are what kids want. This is a film that belongs in the ‘90s, and even then it wouldn’t have been verygood at all.
American Assassin is available in Australian cinemas from September 14
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films