American Assassin (2017). Well, well, well…didn’t we like this macho, jingoistic stuff.

image still american assassin

Film review, by Jason Day, of American Assassin, about a young American man who joins a CIA ‘Black Ops’ team after his girlfriend is killed during a beach terrorist attack. Starring Dylan O’Brien and Michael Keaton.

Thriller/Suspense/Film Noir

4 star rating very good lots to enjoy



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Young American Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is holidaying in Tunisia with his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) when they are swept up in a terrorist attack on the beach. Katrina is killed and, fuelled by hatred and a need for revenge, Mitch is recruited to the CIA. Becoming a ‘Black Op’, he sets out with his mentor, veteran operative Stan (Michael Keaton) to track down the men responsible. But they are waylaid when an even more potent threat, ‘Ghost’ (Taylor Kitsch) threatens to destabilise the whole world by even more deadly means.

Review, by Jason Dayimage poster american assassin

It’s not often a film critic sits down for a preview screening only to find the cinema has buggered everything up and sent me to the wrong screen.

Ticket for the decidedly modern American Assassin duly presented and authorised, I felt confident that the cinema was in the wrong when the WWII epic Dunkirk (2017) started to play.

After all, with 15 years of (semi) professional film reviewing behind me, I know how to book a cinema seat. Don’t I?

I meticulously plan ahead. I check the next batch of film releases a month before their release. I look at the multiplex and art house cinema listings a week before I’m due to publish new reviews, diarising times and locations and setting reminders.

But, wrong I was. Next time Reelreviewer will not be seduced by Cineworld scheduling previews every Monday of the week. After my protestations to the cinema staff, that lesson was shamefacedly learned.

Director Michael Cuesta has helmed several episodes of the terrorist themed TV programme Homeland, so he is on safe ground with this CIA rooted big screen offering.

image still american assassin michael keaton

Shoot ’em up. Michael Keaton in American Assassin (2017). Image: Lionsgate.

Given that the ‘War on Terror’ stumbles on and established authorities like the CIA and seemingly the world’s military have thus far struggled to nip ISIS in the bud, this film follows the logical conclusion that Uncle Sam would seek alternative assistance.

Here, they reach out and recruit vigilantes like Rapp, hell bent on annihilation of a foreign foe  following personal tragedy. We never get to know what the other ‘recruits’ motivations are; reason or reasoning are not necessary when one desires only to destroy.

Rapp’s tragedy, obviously mirroring the Tunisian beach atrocity of June 2015, unfolds for us in terrifying, terrific style, dizzyingly, nauseatingly brought to life by Cuesta with a mix of slow-motion, close-up, tracking shots and swift edits. It’s a cliche for a critic to say a director places you right in the action but he does, squarely and then some.

This brief sequence goes beyond documentary realism…for a moment, it feels like your own eyes are recording the horror of half naked humans casually shot through like sitting ducks at a fairground shooting gallery.

(Later on, as Rapp is thrown out of a gun range, the bullet holes in his girlfriend and the other tourists are contrasted with the paper targets).

Despite the heartbreak and loss in this scene, Cuesta does not dwell on emotions. He has a fully loaded, male-dominated (in Keaton’s training camp, no women have axes to grind against terrorists), jingoistic, all action thriller to deliver. And deliver he does.

The film is brutal throughout, and brilliantly so. This is an 18 rated film and I was shocked at seeing the rating. Not because it isn’t deserved, but because it made me realise how very few 18 rated films I see at the cinema.

I can take a hard core horror or full on violent movie the same as the person next to me, but what I mean is it seems there are hardly any 18 rated movies to see.

(This could be due to the canniness of movie producers; lower rated films mean younger people are permitted to pay and see them at cinemas, resulting in more box office bucks. But, in  the age of digital downloads, Netflix etc., do people even pay attention to BBFC ratings?)

But I digress…

The brutality of America Assassin is more subtle than people being merely shot through the head and tortured. Cuesta opts to show, in beamingly huge close-up, the smiles, smirks and grimaces of his characters. Mostly, this is seen from Rapp’s viewpoint.

CIA Director Irene (Sanaa Lathan) grins almost imperceptibly as Rapp agrees to work with her after she hears him recount his parents’ death and desire to obliterate anything ISIS.

As Rapp goes through his training with Keaton, he is tasered whilst failing a target practice session. He pushes himself to finish despite the shocks, gurning and drooling with accomplishment.

These swift gun, knife and hand-to-hand battle sequences felt tiresome for the first 30 minutes, hurtled at the audience as they were, but they are expertly orchestrated, visceral, real.

It’s all about directorial technique in American Assassin and thank God, for everything else is by-the-numbers.

From O’Brien’s cute and conflicted hero, to Keaton’s grizzled, grumpy mentor, to Taylor Kitsch’s deranged, disgraced baddie, there is nothing stretching or unique to pique your interest.

image still american assassin taylor kitsch

“Deranged, disgraced…” the character, not the actor! Taylor Kitsch as Ghost in American Assassin (2017). Image: Lionsgate.

Keaton in fact comes across like a second rate actor trying too hard to do a Michael Keaton impression. Having his finger nails removed by pliers he screams: “I like it! I like it!”, eyes popping out. The audience laughed, as did I.

Is it worrying we did this? American Assassin is after all not a comedy! Strange that this is the sole moment of levity!

Still, the film works, right up until the spectacular and surprising disaster movie finale, it is properly, solidly made. If a sensible, cinema-purist such as I, I liked it you probably will too.

For more, see the official website.

Cast & credits

Director: Michael Cuesta. 111 mins. CBS Films/Lionsgate/Di Bonaventura Pictures/Nick Wechsler Productions. (18)

Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Nick Wechsler.
Writers: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz.
Camera: Enrique Chediak.
Music: Steven Price.
Sets: Andrew Laws.

Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet, Scott Adkins, Joseph Long, Charlotte Vega.


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