AMERICAN ASSASSIN

*sniff sniff* You smell that? What is that awful stench? Wait… I think I see something coming over the horizon! 

Oh, it’s the dump month that we call September! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, as the summer movie season comes to a close, the studios start dumping their more forgettable fare to fill up the slow autumn release slots. These films aren’t just forgettable, though; they’re usually the worst of the worst. Films that some of these studios didn’t even want to really make. Films that can be of the lowest budgets, and have the most unrecognizable of stars. What we’re dealing with are just terrible, terrible pieces of cinema. So, with the dump month in full swing, let’s climb on in the dumpster and take a dive! 

Dylan O’Brien stars as Mitch Rapp, who… I don’t know. He’s just at the beach with his girlfriend at the beginning. Anyway, Mitch just proposed to gorgeous girlfriend on a gorgeous tropical beach when Islamic terrorists suddenly attack. Mitch survives, but his new fiancé does not. A year and a half later, Mitch has infiltrated an Islamic terror cell, training to take down the man who killed his one true love. When he gets close to his goal, the CIA explosively shows up and do the job for him, bringing Mitch in for questioning. Impressed with his skills, CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) recruits Mitch to be an agent. She sends him off to a camp led by tough as nails agent Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), where he will train Mitch to become an American Assassin. 

It’s as stupid as it sounds, but to be completely honest, I was actually kind of on board with this movie from the very beginning. It starts off very quickly, with the opening action scene coming within the first five minutes and it’s quite well done. It’s done in a single shot with handheld camerawork, clearly capturing the chaos of the situation. Then it jumps to the future where we have our hero training to take the terrorists down. Hellbent on revenge, he’s chatting with terrorists online, training himself in combat, and doing his best to grow a beard, all to complete his mission. Yes, it’s silly, but there are two types of films I love: silly, tongue-in-cheek action films, and revenge flicks. So, far this was right up my alley. 

And then the main guy he wants to kill gets offed fifteen minutes in, and it wasn’t even his own doing! From here, Mitch gets whisked away into a CIA interrogation room to kick off a series of generic action spy thriller tropes that we’ve seen dozens of times before. There’s nothing interesting that director Michael Cuesta or any of the four screenwriters bring to the table in terms of character or plot. I did a little reading into the production of this one, and it’s based off one of those “New York Times Bestsellers”, so this was clearly commissioned by some film executives to make a quick buck off the title. While book adaptations have been around as long as film itself, the great adaptations usually have a vision behind it. This film went through multiple attached directors before settling on Michael Cuesta, who is more known for his work in television than in film. 

Which brings me to this recent trend of wide release films looking like cheap television shows. The lighting is all bright and even, the directing and camerawork stale, the CGI looks like a video game, and the entire production design just looking cheap. It was like I was watching an extended pilot for a terrible network television show. Wait a minute… This was actually produced by CBS Films, so it all makes sense. There’s one sequence in particular that takes place during an interrogation that has totally bizarre blocking and framing. When Mitch is speaking, the camera is over the CIA director’s shoulder, a standard shot for a conversation scene. But then when it cuts to the director talking, it’s a close up of her face, almost looking directly at the camera. It felt like she was talking directly at us and it was just uncomfortable. 

There are many instances like this where I was taken out of the film due to questionable filmmaking decisions. I was often confused at what was happening, because everything was so awfully handled. The plot is generic, but incoherent, with the twists throughout making everything even more convoluted. A lot of plot and character elements are established, but never resolved at all. The atrocious editing only makes it even confusing. I’m not joking when I say a scene plays out with Mitch walking up to the building, looking up to the third story window he needs to enter, then it immediately cuts to inside the room with him sneaking in. No explanation to how he climbed up there, or anything. What’s more ridiculous is I saw the trailer after watching this and there’s a shot in the trailer of him climbing up the building! So, that scene was shot and in the movie, but they cut it out for no reason, instead confusing the audience. No need for logic here when we just need to get to our next lame action scene. 

It’d be nice if those action scenes were any good, but aside from the effective opening, they’re pretty lame and uncreative. While you can tell what’s going on during them, they’re still very roughly edited with a lot basic choreography. I do commend Dylan O’Brien for seemingly doing a lot of his own stunts and action sequences, though. That’s really all I can give him credit for, unfortunately. I’ve never seen O’Brien in anything before, so I don’t have a fully formed opinion of him as an actor, but he’s terrible here. It’s most likely to do with the awful writing, which doesn’t give him any actual character to grow, or anything interesting to do. He mostly just stands around and waits until people tell him to go to the next setpiece. He’s such a non-presence, to whenever he wasn’t in a scene, I sometimes forgot about his character entirely. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a protagonist with such little purpose. 

The rest of the actors don’t fare much better, but there’s not really much to expect from Sanaa Lathan or Taylor Kitsch anyway. Michael Keaton is the only actor here who seems like he’s having a good time. Maybe it’s because his character Stan gets the best dialogue, such as asking a woman why she has such a hard on for somebody. He’s also the only character who has any sort of depth, and practically becomes the main character during the final act. He’s the one who has the main connection with the villain anyway, who’s an apprentice of Stan and wants revenge, or something. Maybe if this film were about Stan it could have been a bit more fun, but alas, we eventually have Mitch facing off with the main villain, all while they have absolutely no connection to each other. 

An assassin should be focused, calm, collected, but I guess if your assassin is American, then they represent the complete opposite of all that. American Assassin is a mess of an action film with no distinct vision, passion, or identity. It’s ineptly made in every way, reeking of nothing more than some film executives trying to adapt whatever popular property they can in order to make some easy cash. This is what Dump Month is all about, though. Aside from some decent looking outliers, such as It and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, September 2017 is looking to be another stinker. Just like every other September. 

2/10

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