From Bond to Bourne, feature films dealing with international espionage generally follow a familiar pattern. The hero tends to either be driven by a deep patriotism or at least the bits and pieces of country loyalty that can be remembered. The spy operates in a world where there can be massive shootouts in crowded areas and only the bad guys get hit. Those gun battles are mixed with a romance that’s either sexist or emotionally forced.
“American Assassin,” based on the works of spy novel writer Vince Flynn, takes a very different and refreshing approach. Flynn’s novels reject the traditional world of chess-playing spies, moving the focus to a world under siege by a bevy of global terror groups, and subject to more straight-on conflicts.
Flynn did turn to a familiar trope in having the United States protected by a super-secret organization under the auspices of the CIA. The latest recruit is Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), a young man whose dislike for authority runs almost as deep of his hatred of terrorists. Rapp’s another diversion from standard spy lore, as he’s not driven by loyalty or patriotism. A horrific act in his past has left him with a burning desire to track down and kill as many terrorists as possible.
The CIA would like to channel that energy. Rapp is recruited by assistant CIA director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) to join the secret team under the guidance of Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). The young fighter is subjected to Hurley’s sadistic training program — but that gets put on hold when the team must find and recover stolen plutonium before it can be turned into a nuclear weapon. This sends the team on a trek around the world, trying to stop an opponent known only as The Ghost (Taylor Kirsch).
Casting O’Brien was a gamble by the producers as the biggest credits on his resume include “The Maze Runner” and “Teen Wolf.” His rawness turned out to be a bonus, especially in scenes with Keaton. The pair have a nice antagonistic relationship, built on a massive generational gap.
Keaton shines. He’s shown great skill in playing heroes (“Batman”) and villains (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”), and his “American Assassin” character features a little bit of both, played with enthusiasm and energy.
“American Assassin” also rejects the outdated notion of what female roles should be in a spy story. Lathan brings commanding clout to her role. And Shiva Negar, playing an undercover agent, proves that a female character in a spy story can be both beautiful and deadly.
The screenplay by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, based on Flynn’s book, never forgets the action is unfolding in a real world. There’s a gun battle in a small restaurant where multiple patrons get caught in the crossfire. The chase scenes have to deal with traffic, and after a big fight, there are cuts and bruises.
There’s slow pacing in scenes that get Rapp trained, but that doesn’t last too long. “American Assassin” gets the job done in a very real-feeling world.