It's got to be more than just a tad coincidental that the jingoistic revenge fantasy American Assassin comes out on the tail of the 16th anniversary of one of the most ominous days in our country's recent history — you can almost see the studio bean counters hovering over the calendar and rubbing their hands together. Bristling bravado and vengeance drive the film based on Vince Flynn's best-selling novel directed by reliable TV helmer, Michael Cuesta, who showed such promise with his edgy coming-of-age drama L.I.E. (2001). It's a fairly straight-ahead go that reaches for the technocratic wizardry of Tom Clancy and frenetic energy of Robert Ludlum, but only succeeds in aspiration. The one thing the posse of screenwriters and Cuesta leave out is character development — it's hard to have a hard-boiled thriller if your hard ass is a cardboard cutout with nothing interesting to say. Running at just under two hours, Assassin feels longer than it should and you never get that necessary pang of empathy to keep your head in the game.
What's to know? We catch up with buff, baby-faced Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) on vacation with his girlfriend enjoying the sea and the sun at a fancy European resort. Just as he proposes, a boat load of jihadists show up and efficiently blow away dozens of vacationers including Rapp's betrothed. Eighteen months later, Rapp's in the middle of a maverick mission to infiltrate a terror cell and take out the extremists who upended his life. He gets pretty far too, but covertly peeking in on all the Arabic back-and-forth is the CIA who, after they extract Rapp from a hotbed situation, can't decide whether to imprison him or fold him into their covert ops arm run by a former Navy SEAL stud by the name of Hurley (Michael Keaton, who looks a bit lost here until he gets to bite into a big juicy ham as he channels his Beetlejuice gonzo badass during a torture scene).
The latter happens and inert lines fall from the lips of agency higher-ups in a bunker full of video monitors, extolling Rapp's exceptionalness — though, to me he seemed no more remarkable than the next slab of beef at the commando training site. We're half way in and besides registering the pretty-boy good looks and witnessing the searing tragic loss, what do we know about Rapp? We know he's mad as hell — that horse gets kicked to near fossilization — but do we know what his career aspirations were in his previous life, what his favorite football team is, or how he likes his steak done? We get none of this.
Sadly, for all the grit and pomp about cause and retribution, Rapp proves a bland yet effective killing machine. Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan he's not. Those guys were saddled with palpable back stories that endeared and presented them with challenges in the field and under duress. Here, that's all a ghost, and what's more, as the focus on the world-hopping plot pulls out, we learn there's a rogue nuke in play with the Iranian government, Russian heavies, and a pissed-off former Navy SEAL (Taylor Kitsch, whose generic turn in John Carter might serve as a bellwether for O'Brien) in the mix to complicate matters. Generally, more baddies to beat down is a good thing, but as orchestrated in Assassin it's just more distractions to dilute an already watered-down affair.
As far as O'Brien and his stardom stock goes, the Maze Runner star is serviceable in a barely serviceable vehicle. Given the stilted framework and lack of effect, Assassin would have been far more fun if one of the Expendables were in the lead — think Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, or Van Damme. Bad lines chewed by square-jawed behemoths over annunciating don't score Oscars but they do make for box-office gold. Again, it's back to lack of soul and character.
For a "Section 8, with an axe to grind," Rapp doesn't bear much of an edge and his hipster millennial nonchalance coupled with the occasional wise-ass quip, register flat. If this were the battle of the sexes, Atomic Blonde would have this blanched palp on its knees in two moves.