Vince Flynn’s “American Assassin” books and “The Maze Runner’s” Dylan O’Brien have complementary demographic constituencies. Yet however fertile that might be as a marketing formula, the resulting movie plays like “The Bourne Identity for Dummies,” a bland wannabe with a threadbare plot that — the ample violence notwithstanding — mostly misses the mark.
Director Michael Cuesta has a resume that includes the Showtime dramas “Homeland” and “Dexter,” but the nuance associated with those shows — and especially the former’s treatment of terrorism — is jettisoned here. What remains plays like an extra-bloody network TV pilot, one that caters to those craving action of the most simple-minded variety.
Brought into a contemporary setting, the premise has been updated but the template is largely the same. O’Brien’s Mitch Rapp is introduced vacationing with his girlfriend at an idyllic beach resort, only to see paradise abruptly lost to a sudden and brutal terror attack.
Fast forward 18 months, and Rapp has painstakingly transformed himself into the ultimate weapon, training his mind and body in order to penetrate the terror cell responsible and exact vengeance.
His efforts, however, catch the attention of a CIA official (Sanaa Lathan), who recruits Rapp for an elite black ops unit, handing him off to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), proclaiming that his innate skills are “off the charts.” Aren’t they always?
A crusty shaper of agents who lives by a “We leave men behind if we have to” philosophy, Hurley butts heads with his new charge, literally and figuratively. Pretty soon, though, they’re bouncing around Europe, chasing a shadowy terrorist (Taylor Kitsch) who has accessed the materials to build a nuclear bomb.
O’Brien is effective enough adopting the hollowed-out gaze of a guy who doesn’t care, but the situations and twists are pretty banal, and while the action has its moments, the dialogue is particularly weak. “The enemy dresses like a deer, and he kills like a lion,” Hurley tells him, which is enough to make one yearn for the silence of the lambs.
The squeamish should be warned there’s also a fair amount of torture, which vaguely echoes the project’s laborious path to the screen. That explains why the quartet of credited writers includes the prestigious team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the latter having at one point been attached to direct the film.
Made for a relatively modest budget, the movie’s financial equation might work out more favorably than its script, with franchise potential in the character and a blow-stuff-up quotient suited to international markets and deferred pay-cable viewing. Still, “American Assassin” seems a little too preoccupied with its next mission, given the ways in which it botches this one.
“American Assassin” premieres Sept. 15 in the U.S. It’s rated R.