What role does emotion play in violence? This question lies at the core of the schlocky spy yarn “American Assassin,” though the film doesn’t offer any clear answer.
Based on the book by Vince Flynn and directed by Michael Cuesta, “American Assassin” opens with a mass shooting, continues with plenty of explicit torture and ends with Navy destroyers in peril and nuclear bombs in play. Escapist this movie is not.
Dylan O’Brien (“Teen Wolf,” “Maze Runner”) stars as Mitch Rapp, a young man who loses everything in a terrorist attack and is hellbent on extracting revenge. The first third of the film, in which he poses as an American jihadist so he can infiltrate a terrorist cell, presents a fascinating a portrait of reckless male energy channeled in all the wrong ways, even if for the right reasons.
Soon Mitch is recruited by the CIA and taken to a top-secret camp run by special forces trainer Stan Hurley, played by an off-the-leash Michael Keaton. Here, Hurley molds his charges into killing machines through brutal fistfights, virtual-reality taser shootouts and extreme macho posturing.
The training is designed to drain all emotion from his students. For example, he triggers Mitch’s recollections of trauma over and over again while shouting, “You let emotion cloud your judgment! Never let it get personal!” In Hurley’s world, the ability to shut out all feeling makes an operative effective. But Mitch just can’t bring himself to suppress all his emotions, and he goes rogue on a mission in Istanbul, and reverts to acting on impulse.
As viewers discover, Hurley’s methods have other shortcomings, too. The trauma he inflicts on trainees doesn’t always produce perfect killing automatons. Sometimes it results in dangerous, deeply damaged operatives such as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch).
Despite the philosophical questions it toys with, “American Assassin” relies on too many clichés to be taken seriously — including home video shots of a dead wife and “Bourne Identity“-style European ops with a female comrade, Annika (Shiva Negar).
Bottom line: This film is just one more example of Hollywood’s glorification of psychopathic killers portrayed as heroes because they’re doing official government work.
What “American Assassin” suggests about our culture is far more chilling than any of its story elements.
1 ½ stars
Rating: R (for strong violence throughout, some torture, language and brief nudity)
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar
Director: Michael Cuesta
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes