Though unstoppable CIA killing machine Mitch Rapp made his fearsome reputation by being unconventional, “American Assassin” takes the opposite tack.
The first film to be made from the late Vince Flynn’s hugely popular series of novels, “American Assassin” is a serviceable, workman-like thriller that makes the familiar as involving as its going to get. It demonstrates that even Jason Bourne lite is better than no Bourne at all, if you’re in the mood.
Directed by Michael Cuesta, a filmmaker with indie credentials best known for his work on TV’s “Homeland,” “Dexter” and “Six Feet Under,” “American Assassin” comes by its familiarity honestly.
Key members of its creative team, including producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler and writers Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, are canny veterans who’ve been around the block a time or two, as has costar Michael Keaton.
“American Assassin” was the 11th Mitch Rapp novel, but because it is the character’s origin story, young actor Dylan O’Brien, best known for starring in the teen franchise “The Maze Runner” and TV’s “Teen Wolf,” got the call to unleash his inner berserker. (O’Brien was badly injured doing a stunt for a “Maze Runner” film, which put his career on hold for a while).
The filmmakers have updated Rapp’s back story from the late 1980s to today, so modifications to his motivation for transforming from fresh-faced male ingénue to stone-cold CIA killer were necessary.
Although the original reason, the death of Rapp’s fiancée in the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie attack, is outdated, bloody terrorist attacks clearly are not, so “American Assassin” opens with a young and happy Rapp proposing to his delighted girlfriend as the waves at a sandy resort in Ibiza cheer them on.
But before the happy couple can so much as down a celebratory drink, ruthless terrorists (you know the type) attack the resort and leave the young man with nothing personal to hang onto except his grief.
Time is supposed to heal all wounds, but that doesn’t prove to be the case for Rapp. When “American Assassin” catches up to him 18 months later, he’s got combat skills an Avenger would envy, but he’s still so furious he’s tossed off of a mixed martial arts team for being too violent.
More than that, Rapp is working on his Arabic and trying to gain access to the bad guys by sending encouraging email messages like “I want to bathe my hands in the blood of infidels.”
All this fury catches the eye of the U.S. government, always on the lookout for trained killers with anger management problems, especially if they’re drenched with attitude.
Cocky as all get out, Rapp is brought to Washington, D.C., for a chat with Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), the CIA’s deputy director of counterterrorism, who tells him, “Our people don’t know what to do with you.”
Which turns out to be not exactly true. Kennedy wants Rapp to join an elite black-ops unit called Orion that trains in a rural location so secret you have to be blindfolded to be taken there. No peeking, Mitch, this means you.
The camp is run in no-nonsense fashion by legendary warrior Stan Hurley (a very effective Keaton), who is not overly impressed by Mitch’s murderous skills. “I’ve seen off the charts before,” he grouses, worried that Rapp is “a vigilante, a Section 8 with an ax to grind.”
Although Hurley would like to impress on his new student that you “never, ever let it get personal,” he has other things to worry about. Fifteen kilos of enriched weapons-grade plutonium have been pilfered and the U.S. would like to get it back.
Also in the hunt for the stuff are a variety of folks up to no good, including, as it turns out, an enigmatic American whose identity and intentions are so mysterious that everyone calls him Ghost (Taylor Kitsch). Let the games begin.
Like many of these action-heavy thrillers, “American Assassin” can’t resist a disturbing scene of torture (feel free to close your eyes) and finds room to include an attractive female agent, in this case a Turkish operative named Annika (Shiva Negar) who is as deadly as everyone else.
As the walls close in on our guys and the fate of the world hangs in the balance, “American Assassin” alternates between the unnerving and the unbelievable and Mitch Rapp comes into his own. Not exactly a surprise, but a hint, perhaps, of more films to come.
Rating: R, for strong violence throughout, some torture, language, and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release