Wednesday, September 20, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN (Film Review): Is AMERICAN ASSASSIN a Film Franchise in the Making?


Creating a new action franchise is a difficult process. It requires some combination of strong IP, star power, compelling narrative, and innovative action sequences. As was demonstrated ably by John Wick in 2014, it does not require a giant budget. CBS Films' recently released American Assassin featuring Vince Flynn's CIA "consultant" Mitch Rapp, has many of the requisite components, but are they enough?


In 1999, Vince Flynn's first Mitch Rapp novel Transfer of Power hit the bookshelves and rose to number 13 on the New York Times best-seller list. While Transfer of Power was subject to some mixed critical reviews, it was strong enough to build an audience big enough to support fifteen more novels and a movie deal. Though Mitch Rapp has a dedicated following are many reasons that Transfer of Power was not the book selected by Hollywood to introduce the character to a wider audience. The first and foremost reason is that Transfer of Power is about terrorists hijacking the White House and that storyline has been played out with Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. The second is that the critics were right to complain that Transfer of Power takes a long time to get to the action. Films are a visual medium and they need stories that are suited to visual storytelling. Long scenes of Mitch Rapp and a retired Secret Service Agent discussing how they are going to slowly scout out where the terrorists have hidden bombs and booby traps makes for a plausible narrative, but it's not the stuff of a great action film. In the end, producers selected the 2010 novel American Assassin, which details Mitch Rapp's origin, as their franchise entry.

One of the things that makes Mitch Rapp a good literary character is that he is what author/screenwriter Steven Barnes described as "a nerdy guy who suffers a tragedy and turns himself into Jason Bourne to get revenge against 'the terrorists.'" While Mitch Rapp is a very physically capable character, NCAA Lacrosse player in the books, he is first and foremost a thinker. In the books, he speaks French like a native and a number of other languages. In the film, he's taught himself Arabic. He's an autodidact of the highest order. It's a quality that makes him difficult to cast though because the actor must be both athletic and "geeky." Dylan O'Brien fits the bill perfectly. The charm that he displayed in Teen Wolf is still evident, but it's suppressed a little as the filmic Mitch Rapp is suffering from a severe case of PTSD.

Michael Keaton portrays Mitch Rapp's mentor/tormentor Stan Hurley in typical Keatonesque fashion. Which in this case means that Keaton turns a relatively unlikable character in the books into a character that is kinder and gentler than the literary version while somehow managing to retain the cold lethality that Stan Hurley embodies in the books. Sanaa Lathan does an effective job of portraying Irene Kennedy, Mitch Rapp's handler and the person who recruited Rapp into a secretive off the books CIA program. Taylor Kitsch chews just enough scenery as "Ghost" that audiences will believe that he's blinded by a need for revenge, but not so much that he spirals into farce as a villain. Much more could have been done with the back story between Hurley and Ghost, but there is enough presented in the film to make Ghost's motivations clear.



Where the film begins to falter is in it's selected narrative. The underlying premise of the film is that some Iranian hardliners are unhappy with the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. These hardliners have come into contact with a former US operative (Ghost) who has agreed to deliver nuclear material to them that they can use to make a nuclear device. What the hardliners don't know is that Ghost plans on using the device himself and in doing so get revenge on the country that abandoned him behind enemy lines. There are some twists in the plot that aren't given as much time to sink in with audiences as they deserve. Chief among these is that the Iranian government itself has been monitoring these hardliners and has sent their own agent to infiltrate the CIA's investigation. This is played off in a "OMG we have a traitor...oh, wait...not a traitor, but valuable resource" sequence that lasts all of five minutes.

Typical of many modern films, American Assassin isn't satisfied with smaller stakes. It takes what could have been an effective kidnap revenge story, which is one of the narratives in the book (though not with Ghost), and dials it to 11 with the addition of a nuclear device. Instead of learning from John Wick, Casino Royale, and The Bourne Identity that personal stakes can drive an action movie, the film relies on the staid ticking clock to maintain dramatic tension. This particular ticking clock falls flat and the story has other events that could have been used. One is reminded of how effectively Guarding Tess utilized one during the final kidnap and rescue sequence. In better action narratives, the personal drives the drama. In American Assassin, there are personal reasons for all the drama, but they play second fiddle to McGuffins.

Similarly, many of the action sequences of American Assassin lack aesthetic and emotional punch. Fans of martial arts films know that martial arts battles are beautiful dance sequences and they require similar attention. The fight, like the dance, must tell a story and viewers must be able to see what's going on. John Wick incorporated grappling techniques into the film in order to minimize the number of cuts in an editing sequence, a choice that resulted in some very elegant fight sequences. Mitch Rapp, in both the books and in the film, is a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which has been featured in John Wick and Red Belt in some wonderful action sequences but is underused in American Assassin. Michael Cuesta's direction of the fight scenes fails to convey the dance the stunt team is providing. These scenes are over edited and confused and this more than anything is the film's biggest failing. An action film can be cliched and derivative, but the action it portrays must be compelling.

American Assassin has many of the components for a solid mid-budget franchise, but future writers and directors would do well to remember that the best action stories are personal and that fight scenes should be treated like beautiful dance numbers around which the rest of the film is structured.

Images: CBS Films
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