Intense! Engrossing! Enthralling! Riveting! Edge of your seat intrigue! This is the stuff from which spy movies and action thrillers are made! What a ride! AMERICAN ASSASSIN is non-stop heart-pounding exhilaration and suspense!
An ambitious project from the start for not only producer Nick Wechsler, but for director Michael Cuesta, both have delivered films that ratchet up the tension and both know how to tell story, Wechsler from a producing standpoint and Cuesta with a director’s storytelling POV, but AMERICAN ASSASSIN far exceeds the scope of anything each has done prior, and does so to incredible result. And yes, while we see the action fingerprints of fellow producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura from beginning to end, action alone doesn’t make for film excellence and that’s where the depth and breadth of Wechsler and Cuesta come into play, making this a truly magnificent filmmaking triumvirate.
What Tom Clancy was to espionage spy thrillers in the 1980’s, Vince Flynn is to the genre in the 21st century, complete with black ops, high-level surveillance, portable nukes, and global threats at the hands of individuals as opposed to well-oiled government or counter-government machines. If you are a fan of the Mitch Rapp novels by Vince Flynn, you will love AMERICAN ASSASSIN. If you’ve never read one of Flynn’s spy thrillers, after seeing this film you’ll be rushing to your local book store or logging into Amazon to order the 13 book series. It’s not often that a film captures the same sense of excitement and intrigue as the printed page but with AMERICAN ASSASSIN it most definitely does.
An origin story, we meet Mitch Rapp as a young man in love only to watch his fiancé be gunned down by terrorists on an idyllic beach pushing him into revenge mode and setting the stage for Rapp to become the best weapon to come around in a long while for the CIA. Placed under the tutelage of legendary CIA trainer Stan Hurley, the relationship between Rapp and Hurley is anything but “friendly”. Rapp harbors revenge while Hurley harbors guilt, having once lost another young upstart who went rogue. With Hurley operating on long standing techniques and training that espionage can never get personal, Rapp goes with his gut and gets personally involved with the enemy thus allowing him to infiltrate the darkest web of mercenaries and politicos, all of whom are set to create a new world order with a nuclear holocaust.
Adapted from Vince Flynn’s novel, screenwriters Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, deliver a standout script which, sadly, is possibly too timely in today’s world. Most appreciative is that all of the plot dots are connected without leading the audience like a donkey with a dangling carrot. But it’s the origin of the Mitch Rapp character and how we see the development of this man and what makes him tick that fascinates. No detail is too small. No stone is left unturned. The resonance and believability of the individual characters of Mitch, Stan, Ghost, Annika, and Victor, along with many of the supporting players, has an authenticity to it, much of which we have seen play out in real life individuals in the news over the past few years. Story and character construct is so rich, giving the audience something to bite into and chew on even long after the curtain closes.
Dylan O’Brien is nothing short of mind-blowing. While we saw this confident teen helping save the world in “Maze Runner”, O’Brien has grown into a real man over the past few years while retaining just enough youthful bravado to embody the character of Mitch Rapp. This is a no holds barred performance by O’Brien as he squares off with Michael Keaton and Taylor Kitsch. He is beyond expressive with not only his body movements, but facial nuance. His reactions are real; the arrogance and defiance befitting a man who has lost everything. Particularly interesting in watching O’Brien are the transformative sequences as Mitch trains to allegedly “kill the infidels.” His body language alters – posture standing, sitting. Very deliberate and consciously effective. And then we see him go toe-to-toe with Keaton. The tension in face-offs between the two is so thick you could cut it (or one of them) with a knife.
As for Michael Keaton, like a fine wine, he just keeps getting better and better with age. Life shows on his face and cinematographer Enrique Chediak and director Cuesta aren’t afraid to utilize ECU’s of Keaton, showing us facial lines that come with sun and age. But Keaton has this ability to run hot and cold on a dime while adding an indescribable edge and tone to the performance. He does just that here. I am enamored with the gusto Keaton brings to Stan. Adding to Keaton’s performance and the persona of Stan is Chediak’s lensing with dutching the camera upwards at Keaton creating that metaphoric superiority and command above others around him.
As outstanding and surprising as Dylan O’Brien is as Mitch Rapp, Taylor Kitsch is equally so as Ghost. Talk about a 360 character turn from what we’re used to seeing from Kitsch! We have never seen him in a role like this or turn in a performance this maniacally nuanced. Kitsch explodes with the pure unbridled insanity he brings to the table. He is the lynchpin and the loose cannon of the piece.
A key appreciative note with the casting – and given the storyline – are the physical similarities between Kitsch and O’Brien which buttress Stan Hurley’s adamant reluctance to take Rapp into the Orion program. This plays beautifully to the character growth and arc of Hurley, planting the seeds for the audience not only as to how AMERICAN ASSASSIN develops, but for potential sequels.
It is always a joy to see is David Suchet on screen and here is no different, bringing a respectability, calm, and professional edge to his performance as Stansfield.
This jury is still out on Sanaa Lathan’s Kennedy, Stan Hurley’s CIA boss and head of the Orion program. There’s something in her performance that doesn’t sit well, even after reflection. Unsure if it’s the Cleopatra haircut or her shoes, but something doesn’t scream “believability” and “resonance” for her as a CIA director, especially that of a shadow unit.
AMERICAN ASSASSIN is a real career leap for Shiva Negar. She plays fellow agent Annika with an almost Mata Hari edge. From the moment she is on screen, Negar gives Annika an untrustworthy vibe with the ease at which she is pulling off difficult tasks (always out of sight of the camera, Mitch, Stan, and everyone else). Raises suspicion and creates effective ambiguity.
Applause Applause Applause to fight choreographer Marcus Shakesheff. This is a mano-y-mano, in your face, hand-to-hand combat action film and the fight sequencing is off the charts. Shakesheff is one of the most talented second unit guys working today, but beyond being able to execute stunts and fights, he knows how to craft and choreograph so fights and action not only look real, but satisfy the believability requirements for the characters involved. With AMERICAN ASSASSIN, Shakesheff has outdone himself, some of which could be also due to his working with the incomparable Scott Adkins, a master in so many martial arts and fight disciplines.
Speaking of Scott Adkins, an almost unforgivable aspect of the story was having his character of Victor disappear so quickly. Granted, it’s necessary to keep the focus moving forward and intensifying with Mitch, Stan, and ultimately Ghost, but watching Adkins in action is pure visceral poetry in motion. A training sequence in the woods between Victor and Mitch is phenomenal, only intensified by the fact that Adkins did all of his own stunt/fight work and thanks to his experience and knowledge, O’Brien was able to do much of his own stunt work when playing with Adkins.
But beyond the fight choreography – all of which is lensed exquisitely by the brilliant Enrique Chediak so as to not only maintain the intensity and growing tension of the story but to put the audience in the midst of the fights, making them very personal with close-ups and mid-close-ups – are the vehicle action sequences. Some of the best I’ve seen on film. Making the work more impressive is that the vehicle chase sequences are shot on location in Rome in very out-of-the-way narrow streets and alleys. Chediak is a master of cinematographic suspense. Just look at what he and Dod Mantle did with Danny Boyle in “127 Hours”, or the close quarter visual and emotional claustrophobia of “Europa Report” or the contrasting vastness and landscape with “The Maze Runner.” Chediak is a cinematographic storyteller. But then look to his lighting in AMERICAN ASSASSIN – overall visual tone with wash and play of sun or grey skies – and the ability to tonally shift the story by opening to a wide shot such as in the climactic boat sequence, opening up the gravity of the situation so that it tacitly shows us the whole world is impacted by a theoretically small event.
There is an explosive third act which encompasses the idea of the ripple effect, an underlying theme of the film from beginning to end – most notably laid out with the character of Ghost. The ripple of his training with Keaton’s Stan gets bigger and bigger as the pieces of the puzzle are slowly revealed. This also beautifully sets us up for a sequel to see what path Mitch, and Stan, will take.
As clean as a samurai sword slicing silk is Conrad Buff’s editing is rapier, setting a rapid-fire, yet nail-biting pacing. Sound excels and the mix of dialogue, ambient sound, action sound (punches, cars, tires, guns, etc.) is extremely well done. Nothing is sacrificed on any level. Completing the ambient tone and emotionality of story and action is a score by Steven Price.
Although the stuff from which spy thrillers are made has moved closer to our daily reality than what was once more fiction than fact in the movies, AMERICAN ASSASSIN explores the emotional underpinnings of the individuals and situations which comprise this world of espionage, promising and delivering non-stop heart-pounding exhilaration and suspense every step of the way.
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Written by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, and based on the novel by Vince Flynn
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Adkins, Shiva Negar, Sanaa Lathan