Uncomfortably jingoistic and grossly impersonal, lacking in any guilty fun or thrills to offset that, American Assassin should be dishonourably discharged from cinemas.
I have mentioned before that I don’t fully believe in the concept of guilty pleasures, since the generally-accepted definition of a guilty pleasure is that of “a film that’s excessively macho/girly that’s outside the typically accepted purview of the insecure and largely Male Film tastemakers that arbitrarily decide what is or is not ‘art.’” Like what you like, damn other people if they judge you for holding a genuine torch for the joys of Bring it On or Road House or whatever. That said, I can’t write off the concept entirely since I too have my own guilty pleasures, and they’re far more deserving of that tag than somebody feeling that of copy of 10 Things I Hate About You should be stored like one would a stack of porno magazines. This is a genre that runs on paranoia, on stoking up xenophobic fires of jingoistic hatred, and which has had documented evidence of influencing real governmental attitudes towards torture. As an avowed progressive and attempted Not-Shitty person, I should despise this genre’s guts, but I just can’t, even though I know better.
I really like War on Terror thrillers. Part of this stems from the fact that 24 was one of the first adult television dramas that I ever saw as well as, consequently, one of the first of adult shows that I fell in love with, but I still love 24 to this day, instead of growing out of it like you might expect. Of course, not that you need me to re-iterate this to you, 24 is very frequently the exact antithesis of progressive values and is oftentimes just straight-up ugly in its rampant xenophobia and Islamophobia. But it can also be a relentlessly entertaining and unbearably tense show, where the sheer thrills it can inspire are often enough to overshadow the unseemlier aspects, for myself at least. It is right-wing paranoid lunacy, but not only does it own that – which I will at least respect a work for being whilst I’m taking a baseball bat full of nails to its gut in offense – its willingness to follow a story all the way through to wherever it deems to be the logical conclusion, to me at least, marks its origins as an offshoot of the old conspiracy thriller templates, just updated for our more modern times.
And I can’t help but hold a soft spot for this subgenre, even if its works ultimately end up as little more than meat-headed slabs of ra-ra jingoistic “patriotism” fuelled by a distrust of anything that doesn’t piss blue, white, and ESPECIALLY red, and a victim complex bigger than Taylor Swift’s. After all, as I have also briefly talked about before, it’s near-impossible to make a liberal version of this sort of genre, since the alternatives that call out the inherent corruption and flaws in this system posit the solution as One Guy Who Knows What’s Right and whose unshakeable moral compass is the one we’re supposed to blindly follow unquestionably, which is far worse in a more insidious way. But when the craft is up to snuff, and the characters are interesting enough, and sometimes also if the work is willing to seriously grapple ethically with its own nature, then all those red flags just melt away and I can find a perverse thrill in stuff I should just full-on hate and be completely opposed to.
So, with all of that said, this does mean that it’s a tricky subgenre to do right. For starters, the actual film or TV show part of the equation needs to deliver in its own right, with great action and interesting characters and stuff going on in its head, which is a remit that a surprising amount of works still seem to view as a suggestion more than anything else. But, more importantly, in order for me to embrace this kind of War on Terror thriller to at least some degree, it needs to commit to one side or the other. It can either be an earnest attempt at deconstructing the entire concept and trying to create the oxymoronic left-wing conspiracy thriller – achievable either by going the whole hog and indicting its own protagonist and withholding almost all potential catharsis to the viewer (like The Bourne Trilogy did before Jason Bourne fucked everything up), or at least acknowledging that, even if its cast do carry regrets and self-awareness, they don’t deserve happy endings even with their attempts at redemption (the Nikita CW series, at least up to the mid-Season 3 point that I’ve gotten to). Or it can be a madcap right-wing gun-ho bout of pure mania (most seasons of 24).
What you can’t be is a half-assed attempt at both with zero self-awareness. With all of that set-up out of the way, allow me to introduce American Assassin, a brainless piece of scarily-intense jingoistic xenophobia which displays just enough feints towards some kind of self-awareness to give off the impression to more passive viewers that there is more going on underneath the hood. In reality, however, Assassin is about as morally complex as a child’s colouring book; a power-fantasy for psychopathic, obsessive, delusional White Men filled with unfocussed rage at the world around them, and who are apparently exactly the kind of people that world governments should whittle down into elite murdering machines that protect their nations from outside threats. Sure, some of them may end up going rogue and planning to nuke their own country for vague reasons that the film is decidedly disinterested in exploring, but that’s why you throw even more of those exact same unstable killing machines at that rogue element until it’s dead! I mean, what are you going to do? NOT admit that everything about this is flawed and icky, and that any worst-case scenarios are just anomalies we shouldn’t dwell on?
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) – who, I am going to be perfectly honest, I honestly thought was just called “Ratt,” like the 80s Hair Metal band, until the credits roll appeared, because nobody in the film says or properly pronounces his name enough to clear up my confusion – is Jack Bauer without a soul. You know all the worst things that Jack Bauer does in 24? The times he kills villains in cold blood, or when he tortured an innocent man for a full hour (who also happened to be his girlfriend-at-the-time’s ex) on the misguided belief that he was withholding information, or went outside the law and all ethics to Do What Needed To Be Done? You know how we largely were supposed to be ok with it because we also got to see Jack as a human, watch years of baggage slowly crush him down, and witness him at both his lowest and his closest to normal so that we could understand why he’s driven to do the often-heinous things he does out of sincere desperation? And you also know how 24, even in its most reactionary right-wing moments, always recognised that Jack Bauer was going to be a man damned for those things he does, and that, try as he might, he just can’t get a happy ending because the man frankly does not deserve one?
Yeah? Mitch is Jack without any of those qualifiers and not a speck of self-awareness on the part of the vehicle housing him as to how little separates him from the bad guys he is relentlessly gunning down and plunging knives into the throats of. Outside of an admittedly-effective opening prologue in which Mitch and his girlfriend are shot on a beach massacre by a group of middle-eastern Muslim terrorists (her shots are fatal but his aren’t), there is no humanity, no personality, no life to Mitch Rapp. One of his CIA recruiters, Deputy Head Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan who deserves far better than this shit), explicitly commends this fact as what they’ve been looking for. Apparently easily-provoked, rage-fuelled, insubordinate sadists are exactly what the American intelligence community needs more of. At one point, suspecting that one of his allies is a mole working for the Iranians, we get treated to a lovely long sequence in which Mitch violently threatens this woman, before trying to drown her in a bathtub. The fact that Mitch left her alive when we cut to the next scene mid-drowning is the biggest surprise that American Assassin has to offer; that Mitch’s assumption was completely right, far less so.
There is almost nothing separating Mitch, who is recruited to the program after he spends 18 months training himself to single-handedly infiltrate Muslim terror cells and enact violent revenge on those that killed his girlfriend (cos that kind of fanatical reckless cry-for-help is really just go-getting initiative,) from our villain, Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), a former member of the program gone rogue who is building a nuclear bomb for Iran. Only that Ghost is aiming his swathe of death and destruction on America instead of indiscriminate Middle-Eastern countries that America wants to secretly control – none of this is me stretching like a conspiracy theorist, by the way, this is all actually brought up in-film without condemnation – and he’s also self-aware about how awful everything is and how the US government want empty drones who don’t care about being abandoned to die once tits go awkwardly up. Can’t be having autonomy in our ruthless killing machines. It’s such an irritating bug when these unstable psychopaths that have been fashioned into furious efficient killing machines don’t immediately shut down and disappear without complaint once they’ve outlived their usefulness.
Taylor Kitsch and Dylan O’Brien both even deliver the exact same empty, blank husk of a performance as each other, which I could stretch to reading as a deliberate commentary on the similarities between their characters and how both are as bad as the other in their own ways, but is more likely just a result of both actors being charisma-less vacuums with the on-screen personalities of a particularly persistent nat. This ends up making O’Brien come off as less a man driven by an Islamophobic revenge he’s convinced himself is a deeply moralistic crusade to wipe terrible people off the face of the Earth – multiple times, the film gives us the view of a kill from Mitch’s perspective where the person he’s killing has been replaced by that of the man who gunned down his girlfriend, and this is somehow not played as a disturbing warning sign of giant proportions – and more like one of those Men’s Rights Activists who go on giant misogynistic shooting sprees. I’m honestly quietly repulsed by the fact that, in spite of all of this, I actually found O’Brien quite hot, with his ridiculous stubble, perfectly-mussled hair, and emotionless dead-eyed stare; he’s somehow the perfect embodiment of that previous comparison.
Director Michael Cuesta, previous of Kill the Messenger and several episodes of Homeland’s first season (when it was still earnestly trying to be the opposite of all of this), meanwhile, leans heavily into playing up the brainless, ugly jingoism without trying to inject any guilty fun or excitement into proceedings to counterbalance it all. There are a few torture scenes that 24 (a show that aired on network television in the mid-2000s) would have laughed out of the building for being weak shit, all of the action is too blandly shot and hyperactively cut to raise any pulses, and overall his work is essentially just that of a Poundland Michael Bay, right down to a climactic shot of a fleet of American military hardware proudly withstanding a pounding whilst inspirational music and lens flares pander like a panicking panhandler outside a plaza.
I think that’s what gets me most of all about American Assassin: its insincerity. For a movie as relentlessly ugly as this one is, it still comes off as nothing more than a weak-sauce version of another, equally as ugly, yet ultimately more interesting Lionsgate release: London Has Fallen. That too is an ugly, hateful little film with zero self-awareness, yet I could find a pulse to it. A movie, after all, that has Gerard Butler quipping “Go back to Fuckheadistan!” has creative folks engaged with the material even if they are thoroughly inept in every aspect in addition to being terrible people, whilst all American Assassin can do is sleepwalk its way through its disjointedly-structured garbage in a workman-like fashion. London Has Fallen is trying to be the kind of movie it is; American Assassin largely just stumbles into it and doesn’t seem particularly bothered by that fact as long as everybody gets paid at the end of the day. Save for Michael Keaton who, goddamn, is having so much fun tearing into all that scenery that I get the impression he’s going to spitefully ride out the rest of his career back in films like this due to getting robbed for Best Actor twice.
For the record, I didn’t set out to tear American Assassin to shreds like this. I was going to point out how goddamn weird and unsettling it is that a film would end with the heavy implication that its protagonist is going to destabilise an entire country against the orders of his superiors and play it as either a “sending the crowd home happy” loose-ends denouement or a raucous “here we go again” bit of cheekiness – it’s been 48 hours, and I still cannot figure out which of those two that utterly bizarre ending is more resembling – but ultimately dismissing it on account of just how goddamn boring it is. Yet the more I sketched out this piece, which was also originally way shorter because of course it was, the more the realisation overtook me that I hated this movie. Not even so much for the relentless ugliness, but more for how utterly lacking in any fingerprints said ugliness is. Much like last year’s Suicide Squad, American Assassin is an ugly, hateful little film with a juvenile perception of American masculine cool, but in such an impersonal way. That there is an ideology at play here, but not one that arrived from any intent or effort or specific choice; that there just was, at the end of it all, and not a single person involved with it cared one way or the other.
Not only is American Assassin a boring, hateful, nothing of a movie, it can’t even muster up the decency to own any part of the long trail of shit emanating from its origin point. In that regard, the film ultimately does resemble exactly the kind of soldier the film’s CIA views as an exemplar. Empty, efficient, and apathetic. A husk that its superiors wind up, set loose, and forget about once the task is completed. The consequences and aftermaths are somebody else’s problem, and it’s not like those involved with the film care either way. They had a job to do, they turned it in with no questions asked. American Assassin is Mitch Rapp, and is similarly in denial about its deep, removed, impersonal sadism. Addressing it, after all, would mean admitting that there’s a problem with what they’re doing, and what they’re doing “is only business.” Mission complete, on to the next one.
Callie Petch doesn’t want to wake up on their own anymore.