Some covert operatives take no prisoners. Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) takes no orders.
Tell the hero of “American Assassin” to stand down, and he’ll rush straight into what should be a suicide mission. Demand that he not make things personal, and that’s exactly what he’ll do. Ask him to make a pizza-and-beer run, and he’d no doubt return with a beanbag chair and an alpaca.
At some point, you’d think his superiors would catch on and say something along the lines of, “Hey, Mitch, whatever you do, don’t leave this volatile situation where you’re outmanned and outgunned and fly home to the safety of your couch.”
When we first meet Rapp, he’s proposing to his girlfriend (Charlotte Vega) in the waters off the coast of Ibiza. While Mitch is off getting celebratory drinks, terrorists attack the resort, shooting him multiple times and killing her inches before Mitch can get to her.
Eighteen months later, Mitch is getting kicked out of MMA gyms for being too aggressive, using a public gun range as his personal special-ops training course and pounding a heavy bag and throwing knives in his apartment, much to his landlord’s chagrin.
After infiltrating a terror cell online, he sets out for Libya to kill as many of its members as he can, when he’s captured by the CIA, which had been tracking him for months.
Thirty days of interrogation in a holding facility convinces Rapp to join a top-secret program, code-named Orion, that’s never really explained. For the most part, it’s little more than a fight club in the woods of Virginia run by former Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton).
Deputy CIA Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) is Rapp’s biggest supporter, spewing generic platitudes like, “He’s testing through the roof. Might be the best I’ve ever seen.” But Hurley isn’t impressed. “I’ve seen ‘off the charts’ before,” he shrugs.
Rapp doesn’t look like much, but he has spunk, and an all-consuming rage to murder everyone responsible for his fiancee’s death. So when an assassin known only as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) is thought to be assembling a nuclear warhead, piece by stolen piece, Hurley, Rapp and a Turkish agent named Annika (Shiva Negar) start hopping across Europe in an attempt to stop him.
Based on the novels by the late Vince Flynn, “American Assassin” doesn’t offer much in the way of action you haven’t seen before and better. Directed by Michael Cuesta (Showtime’s “Homeland”) from a script by Stephen Schiff (FX’s “The Americans”), Michael Finch (“The November Man”) and the team of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”), the movie is basically watered-down “Bourne” with a touch of “Mission: Impossible.” O’Brien, though, is no Matt Damon, and he’s certainly no Tom Cruise.
I never had to see a “Maze Runner” movie, so I have no idea whether O’Brien can act, although those movies may not be the best litmus test for that. As for “American Assassin,” though, he lacks any discernible charisma, but that could have been a character choice. Still, watching them side by side, it’s hard not to think that Kitsch would have made a better, more intriguing Rapp if he weren’t stuck in leading-man jail after the back-to-back flops of “John Carter” and “Battleship” all the way back in 2012.
Keaton, though, continues his career renaissance in what could have been a throwaway role. I won’t give away the circumstances, but there’s a moment when his eyes light up, and there’s the briefest, subtle smile just before his inner wildman gets to come out and play. In that instant, he’s a little bit Beetlejuice, a little bit Batman and even some Birdman, and it’s the best scene in the movie by far.
“American Assassin” adds interesting touches to Rapp’s training, and there’s a surprise I should have seen coming but didn’t.
For the most part, though, it’s the sort of movie where people grab shards of glass, use them as weapons in hand-to-hand combat and never so much as wince while gripping the jagged edges. There’s never even a bandage waiting for them at the end.
And just once I’d like to see a movie where, when the clock is ticking down from 20 minutes, the action that unfolds before time runs out wouldn’t take at least an hour, if not two or three.
“American Assassin” isn’t up to Keaton’s recent standards. It’s closer to the movies he was cranking out while crawling back to the A-list after “Batman Returns.” But he still makes the thriller worth a look, if only just.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.