Watching American Assassin gives you a dose of the mid-budget blues. You’ll be familiar with the condition. It’s that sense of frustration – wandering consciousness from lack of engagement with the wan material offered up in place of stylized thrills. It’s the sense the film’s ambitions exceeded the modest funding producers were able to achieve. Perhaps the elevator pitch, “it’s a dark and violent half-remake of Skyfall with a ticking bomb climax” just didn’t inspire enough confidence. It’s as if the money men said, “this shit’s pretty derivative, but we have Michael Keaton, so we’ll give you the cash for the nuke at the end”. Well, just be grateful you got that.
So we get a bad taste opener, modelled on the 2015 beach massacre at Port El Kantaoui, Tunisia; a misguided attempt at establishing the movie’s brutal, realist credentials, belied by all that follows. This cheap trade on real grief improbably introduces us to one-man terrorist hunting vigilante, Dylan O’Brien – a vengeful lunatic who catches the eye of CIA scouts when he inexplicably infiltrates an Islamist terrorist cell on his own initiative, sans intelligence or tactical support. Apparently all you need is the will to do it, an internet connection, and some rudimentary training in shooting and hand-to-hand combat.
Fortunately, because pulling that thread would only untangle the movie, the filmmakers move things along fast. O’Brien is trained by disgruntled seen-it-all special ops man, Keaton, who puts his new unbalanced protégé into the field and on course for a rendezvous with old unbalanced protégé, Taylor Kitsch, codename: Ghost, who’s in the market to buy a nuclear bomb. Both men look very similar and leave actor sized holes in the film, so it’s fortunate we’re given time to meet the eponymous assassin before his nemesis is revealed, else the movie would be nigh on impenetrable.
Mid-budget blues grip hard during the film’s many compromised action sequences; set pieces that amount to little more than modest driving and choppy fights in small hotel rooms. The money’s saved for the nuclear blast climax, in which the US sixth fleet weathers an underwater blast, but even here, it seems that FX house Double Negative weren’t given quite enough lucre to polish the pixels.
American Assassin doesn’t have much to offer the spy thriller aficionado, then, though those on unreconstructed misogyny watch will enjoy the casual killing of female characters and/or their propensity to be difficult or duplicitous. Even the target in a training exercise turns out to be a pregnant woman who O’Brien dutifully shoots until he runs out of bullets. I wouldn’t want to be director Michael Cuesta’s girlfriend. If that’s you, I’d pack a case and call a taxi.