American Assassin feels like it sprang directly from the id of some wannabe militia man reading Soldier of Fortune during frequent toilet breaks, who imagines elaborate revenge scenarios about finding the terrorists who murdered his imaginary girlfriend and killing them with MMA. It’s a poor man’s Bourne, with all the tasteful vagaries of geopolitical spycraft stripped away until it’s just some pockmarked Steve Bannon type shouting about enriched plutonium to whip us into an ill-advised war with Iran. I’d always wondered what the Bourne series might look like if its authoritarian impulses weren’t so hedged and dull, and in that way, American Assassin is refreshing, like hearing a petty fascist finally openly advocate genocide.
Our hero is Mitch Rapp, from the prolific Vince Flynn’s series of crappy airport fiction, played by Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf), who with some facial scruff and floppy hair feels a little like OC-era Adam Brody. (More like Adorable Assassin, am I right??) In the first scene, Mitch proposes to his bikini model girlfriend (played by Charlotte Vega) in the gentle waves of a Mediterranean resort, shortly before she gets blown away by AK-wielding jihadists and bleeds out on the sand before his very eyes. Like I said, points for directness.
While it’s unclear what Mitch’s job was before his baby left this world, after the terrorists kill his fianceé he turns himself into a kind of DIY counter-terrorism spy. This mostly seems to involve chatting in Arabic online and training at, I kid you not, “Troy’s MMA.” He spends his days being a giant dick to his training partners (using chokes that don’t actually exist — you can’t do a gi choke on a guy in a t-shirt) and his nights throwing knives at a black and white picture of Adnan Al-Mansur, kicking a big heavy bag in his thankfully open-floor plan apartment along the way. Because everyone knows that the way to stop ISIS is with a nice roundhouse. TERRORIZE THIS, MOHAMMED! (*cuts cantaloupe with katana*)
Eventually Mitch gets recruited by an elite CIA unit called “Orion,” led by Stan Hurley (played by Michael Keaton, who has never been bad, not even in this turd), who puts Mitch through an intensive training course that mostly seems to involve more MMA, this time out in the woods. Along the way, Stan gives helpful counter-terrorism advice like “The enemy dresses like a deer and kills like a lion” and reads important dossiers on his Panasonic Tough Book. (Because he’s tough! Grrr!) Would you believe Mitch is a brash but reckless prodigy?
Stan begrudgingly takes Mitch along on a mission to stop some Iranians from buying black market plutonium for nuclear weapons, assisted in their dastardly task by a rogue agent, Stan’s former protege, played by Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch’s character sells the Iranians some nuclear triggers, saying “Now you can kill as many Jews as you want.”
Iran is American Assassin‘s big villain, presumably for their crime of not funding American infrastructure projects. Those damned Iranians! Remember how 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Iran? It feels almost like someone adapted Peter Berg’s “You gotta join the army, motherfucker!” interview into a film (which, incredibly, has no less than four credited screenwriters), conflating Jihadist terror attacks with unrelated state-level malefactors in George W. Bushian style.
In typical fashion, most of these intractable geopolitical conflicts are solved through hand-to-hand combat. To its credit, American Assassin‘s fight choreography is better than Bourne‘s shaky garbage, and the R-rating allows for more blood, and even a nameless naked lady at one point (does Soldier of Fortune have a centerfold?).
Of course, the trouble with American Assassin isn’t its graphic violence (yes, please), rampant vulgarity (ditto), or even its misplaced, borderline irresponsible jingoism (sure, why not). In fact, plenty of great action movies have sprung from problematic politics. Hell, Rambo III thanked the brave Taliban in the credits and John Milius (who, like American Assassin author Vince Flynn, was rejected by the Marines on medical grounds) never heard of a foreign country he didn’t want to bomb. The trouble with American Assassin is that it’s a fifth grader’s fantasy that doesn’t even allow itself to have fun. It’s too stunted to even own its inherent homoeroticism.
American Assassin is far from the first action movie to use hegemonic scaremongering as the jumping off point to flatter the national security apparatus and indulge our grossest impulses, but at least when Arnold Schwarzenegger killed a hundred faceless brown terrorists, it was fun. He dropped a quip here and there, rocking 22-inch pythons and effusing rugged charm. Mitch Rapp is a mopey turd whose eyes fill with tears every time someone mentions his dead girlfriend. Don’t give us wish fulfillment and pretend it’s a gritty political drama. Enough with the weaponized dourness. If you’re going to make a Marine Todd movie, at least make Marine Todd awesome.