Friday, September 15, 2017

Zaki's Review: American Assassin

It was exactly thirty years ago that I first saw the Chuck Norris actioner The Delta Force, giving seven-year-old Zaki one of his earliest glimpses of the filter through which Hollywood tends to depict Middle Eastern/Muslim characters. You know the type: Swarthy hordes with bushy beards (skullcap optional), spouting exclamations such as "By the beard of the prophet!" and the like. Well, here we are three decades on, and here's the simplistic, xenophobic, just-plain-dumb American Assassin right on schedule to show us how far we haven't come.

The would-be franchise starter directed by Michael Cuesta from a patchwork script by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz is draped in a cloak of jingoism, but at its core it's an ugly film that glorifies cruelty while trafficking in stereotypes that were tired even back in 1999 when author Vince Flynn first introduced his counter-terrorist hero Mitch Rapp (played here by former Maze Runner Dylan O'Brien). And perhaps worst of all, it's so thuddingly, achingly predictable that you can pretty much map out the various plot turns based on how far into the runtime we are.

We're first introduced to Rapp in a prologue depicting the death of his fiancé at the hands of those aforementioned swarthy, bearded types while vacationing. The grief-stricken, vengeance-obsessed Rapp eventually travels to the Middle East to mete out , even ingratiating himself into a terror cell, but he's swooped up and recruited by CIA honcho Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) to join a classified team code-named "Orion," headed up by grizzled Cold Warrior Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, eminently watchable even when slumming in material like this).

When the US government becomes aware of missing Russian Plutonium, their eyes soon turn to those rascally Iranians, bristling at the constraints of that nuclear treaty they signed a few years ago (Thanks Obama!) and really jonesing to start up a war with Israel. Luckily, the extra-legal killers of Orion are on the case, and soon enough Mitch Rapp lands in Rome and sets about expressing his thirst for vengeance in the healthiest way possible: by showing those dirty Iranians some good, old-fashioned American ass-kickery.

The lack of any subtlety or nuance in this thing would be idiotic in the best of circumstances, but unfortunately for the film and the audience, it's made even more galling when you realize that Rapp is less a fully-formed character than he is a crazy quilt of generic action hero cliches: He's reckless, disobedient, and bristles under authority, but dammit, he gets results! He's one of those characters who's so gifted that other characters have to keep describing him with awed movie shorthand like, "All his tests were off the charts!" Because, y'know, of course they were.

Home studio CBS Films clearly has hopes for a Bourne-style series they can cash out on, but O'Brien is no Matt Damon. He comes off as too slight to shoulder that load. I haven't read any of Flynn's Mitch Rapp novels so I can't speak to how accurately the film reflects the character depicted in the books (of which there are twelve and counting), but as a purely filmic experience, this feels like little more than a gussied-up version of the kind of dreck producers Menaham Golan & Yorham Globus cranked out with regularity during the '80s. You could swap in American Ninja's Michael Dudikoff as the lead and no one would notice.

The other actors fare a bit better, Keaton foremost among them, but he's limited by the mentor/father figure box his role comes in. Further, the climactic showdown between Rapp and his opposite number, a former operative now called the Ghost (Taylor Kitch, still doing penance for the 2012 double-flop of John Carter and Battleship) lacks stakes. Even the jeopardy feels contrived. This is a movie where an actual nuclear explosion is a central part of the story, but it's given so little real world significance it might as well be the big blue beam we see shooting skyward in every other superhero blockbuster's third act.

For thirty years I've been seeing this same kind of stuff, and honestly, it's exhausting. Further, given the current geopolitical situation in our world and the very real stakes for continued human survival, American Assassin's arrival -- mere days after the 9/11 anniversary, no less -- feels particularly tone deaf. Though the audience it's aimed at will likely find little to quibble with, that is itself problematic given the worldview it posits. Like last year's London Has Fallen, this film dutifully boils away all realpolitik complexity and leaves behind a scenario where the United States is the lone hammer in a world full of nails. D

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