'American Assassin' Review: Why This By-the-Numbers Spy Thriller Works

"Even when logic goes up in flames, the film speeds ahead like a heat-seeking missile"

Shiva Negar, Michael Keaton, Neg Adamson and Dylan O’Brien in AMERICAN ASSASSIN. Credit: Christian Black/Lionsgate

There are film snobs who like to feel superior to meat-and-potatoes action thrillers, favoring only art films meant to be deconstructed over high tea. They can screw off. My feeling is when gung-ho escapism is dished out with the enthusiasm and expertise of American Assassin, why resist? Directed by Michael Cuesta, a filmmaker with indie bonafides (L.I.E., Kill the Messenger), American Assassin is the first film adapted from the 12 novels that the late Vince Flynn wrote about Mitch Rapp, a counter-terrorism agent doing black ops for the CIA.

This is Rapp's origin story, which accounts for the casting of Dylan O'Brien, of The Maze Runner trilogy and TV's Teen Wolf, as Rapp in larva form. O'Brien doesn't just play the role; he nails it, investing Rapp with the star shine of a young Tom Cruise and the acting chops of a seasoned pro. On first sight, he's a blank page, a lovestruck grad student, orphaned as a teen and now ready to propose to his gf Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on the beach of Ibiza. When Muslim terrorists, led by Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed), spray Uzi fire into the crowded area, Katrina is collateral damage and a vengeful Rapp is ready to turn killing machine. Over 18 months, he learns Arabic, trains himself in warfare and martial arts and infiltrates the Libyan cell that wasted Katrina. You'd think the CIA would shut him down. Nah. Counterterrorism chief Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) wants him on her team.

And so the fun begins. Haven't we seen this plot like a trillion times before? Damn straight. But the fireworks still grab you when the great Michael Keaton shows up as Stan Hurley, a former Navy SEAL who's ready to chew up and spit out any raw recruit who gets up in his face. Hurley's orders are to channel the energy of hothead Rapp and get the kid ready to shoot, stab, blow things up, and kill with his bare hands. Again, a process to be filed under "same old shit" until Keaton and O'Brien make it all seem fresh again. As for the ethics of killing a kid's conscience to make him a more efficient assassin, this movie isn't much bothered. And since the script, credited to four writers, sticks to the shallows, you shouldn't be bothered either.

It's the mayhem that counts as Rapp's mission impossible has him tracking down plutonium stolen from the Russians before a rogue physicist (Sharif Dorani) can turn it into a terrorist bomb. Rapp races all over Warsaw, Istanbul and Rome on land, sea and chopper, mixing it up with an American mercenary called Ghost (the excellent Taylor Kitsch) who might have more in common with Rapp than Rapp knows. Even when logic goes up in flames, the film speeds ahead like a heat-seeking missile. Cuesta has learned a lot about large-scale, spy-game choreography from his directing stint on Homeland. Gorgeously shot by Enrique Chediak, American Assassin may be too slick for its own good, but O'Brien cuts deep enough to make you root for a Rapp franchise. That's saying something.