Hits the mark with thrills and spills
WHILE the world contemplates a nucleararmed North Korea, you may wonder if a thriller about a rogue nuke is the sort of entertainment people seek. When it’s as faux-political as American Assassin, the answer just might be yes.
Built for action, like its title character, the movie packs a muscular, bloody punch, but mainly it’s a well-oiled diversion.
Director Michael Cuesta, operating more in the vein of his work on Homeland than such features as LIE and Kill the Messenger, proves de ft at orchestrating large-scale sequences.
The globe-hopping story of covert US operatives zeroing in on terrorist factions and renegade mercenaries aims to separate itself from other popcorn spy thrillers based on airport novels. Yet even with its masterful set pieces and Michael Keaton’s ferociously enjoyable turn as a bad-ass CIA trainer, chances are that you’ll have stopped thinking about it by the time you exit the cinema.
A beefed-up Dylan O’Brien, of The Maze Runner films and the series Teen Wolf, steps into a potential new franchise role in this origin story of black-ops recruit Mitch Rapp, the main character in more than a dozen novels by the late Vince Flynn.
In the opening sequence he’s a young man beside himself with happiness as he proposes to his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega), during their holiday on Ibiza.
With an overcast tint to the seaside sunlight and a nervous charge to the camera work, Cuesta expertly turns this hopeful scene into one that’s fraught with dread from the get-go. It ends in a bloodbath, dozens of beach-goers mowed down by Uzi-wielding gunmen. Among the dead is Rapp’s fiancée.
O’Brien convincingly conveys the change in Rapp when we next see him, a year-and-a-half later. Having quit his graduate studies in order to devote himself to avenging Katrina’s murder, he’s a man filled with purpose and yet hollowed out.
He’s taught himself marksmanship and martial arts as well as Arabic, so when he infiltrates the Libyan cell of Mansur (Shahid Ahmed), the group responsible for Katrina’s death,
US intelligence has been watching him closely enough to swoop in for his longed-for kill. Then they swoop in for Rapp.
Though the CIA director (David Suchet) has his doubts, his counter-terrorism chief, Irene Kennedy – the epitome of cool, tough composure in Sanaa Lathan’s performance – deems Rapp just the ticket for the inner sanctum of covert operations.
Orphaned as a teenager and deprived of his life partner, he has the perfect psychological profile she seeks in a killing machine.
The violence percolating inside him is so boundless that he doesn’t know how to channel it, which gets him kicked out of his gym for pummeling a wrestling partner.
Enter CIA trainer Stan Hurley (Keaton), a gruff ex-Navy Seal who runs a boot camp in the Virginia woods. Putting the gusto in sadism, Hurley delights in rearranging the expectations of overconfident whipper-snappers like Rapp.
The poundings get tired, but a virtual reality training session is a pretty nifty bit of spy craft.
Cuesta makes seamless work of demanding, high-intensity action sequences in the midst of crowded city centres including Warsaw, Istanbul and Rome (only the latter was an actual production location) and in more private quarters, like a highrise apartment.
A climactic showdown on the sea, involving a speedboat, helicopter and the US fleet, combines ace visual effects with live action for a near-disaster of chilling, thrilling proportions.
Those thrills are the movie’s true subject; though there are mentions of the US-Iran nuclear deal and a geopolitical hotspot or two, its concern is a sort of free-floating danger, dressed in recognisable national generalities.
Dylan O’Brien as black-ops recruit Mitch Rapp and Sanaa Lathan as CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy in American Assassin. Right, Michael Keaton plays a hardcore CIA trainer.