From the opening moments of American Assassin, you know exactly where this is going to go. The ridiculously named Mitch Rapp (Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien)—about whom, sadly, the movie fails to make a “Rapp sheet” joke—has just surprised his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) with an engagement ring as they vacation in sunny Spain, taking care not to dip his smartphone in the water as he films this happy event. Katrina responds with a joyful “yes,” and their fellow tourists burst into applause on the beach. But we know the title of the movie we’re watching, and we know that things are about to go horribly, violently wrong. And indeed, right on cue, here come the jihadi terrorists to mow down Mitch’s bikini-clad true love.
Thus begins Mitch’s transformation into a self-trained, kickboxing, knife-throwing revenge machine, the best that CIA deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) has ever seen. After Kennedy and her crew sabotage Mitch’s attempt to insinuate himself in a Libyan terrorist cell early in the film, American Assassin turns into a “chosen one” narrative à la The Matrix for a little while, with ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) serving as the comically grizzled Morpheus to Mitch’s cocky Neo. Hurley runs some sort of uber-tough guy boot camp for extra-secret agents out in the Virginia woods, where they train with a combination of high-tech VR mindfuckery and good old-fashioned knife fights. They also exchange macho quips right out of Spy Movie 101, most notably repeated reminders to “never make it personal.” (It’s going to get personal.)
Soon enough, we switch gears to a slick, equally generic spy thriller plot, revolving around Mitch and Hurley’s quest to recover stolen uranium from a mercenary ex-member of Hurley’s squad now going by the sobriquet of Ghost (Taylor Kitsch). Naturally, Mitch, who’s got the gymnastic abilities of Spider-Man and the linguistic skills of C-3PO, is going to disobey orders and go rogue in pursuit of his target. He’ll also be forgiven, because dammit, he gets the job done. By the end of the film, we’ll visit European and Middle Eastern cities from London to Dubai, a sultry female agent will turn out to be more than she seems, Keaton will bite a guy’s ear off, and American military might will be celebrated with a lot of whooshing pans and abrupt zooms. Crowds will scream and scatter, and the brass back at HQ will fold their hands and watch monitors with intense interest. It’s paper-thin, predictable, and goofy as hell, but if you can get past the whole “pro-military propaganda” thing, it’s pretty fun in the moment.
Sadly, though, those same generic beats make American Assassin highly forgettable. The film’s cinematography, although glossy, isn’t particularly memorable either, bathing nearly every scene in a badass gunmetal gray. Similarly, the action, while occasionally inventive (a fistfight on a speedboat is a giddy highlight) and visceral enough to earn its R rating, passes by in an indifferent blur, which is a weird thing to say about a movie that has a graphic torture scene in it. The soundtrack is similarly expected, a patriotic orchestral thrum not too far off from the heavy metal track used in a faux jihadi recruitment video toward the beginning of the film. But hey, at least it goes light on shaky cam.
On paper, all the pieces are there to make Mitch Rapp the next Jason Bourne, or at least the next Jack Reacher. But by substituting macho posturing for real personality, American Assassin’s franchise prospects appear as dim as the employment prospects for Middle Eastern actors who don’t want to play terrorists. Come on—they didn’t even put his name in the title.