If you can get past the blunt jingoism and preposterous renderings of government intelligence protocol, “American Assassin” is a political thriller that explores some provocative ideas. Operatives recruited for their hate-fueled relentlessness. The hazards of a counter-terrorism strategy hinging on fighting fire with equally fanatical fire.
They’re hot-button themes examined in graphic style. Trouble is, the movie’s dopiness isn’t in fact something you can get past. “American Assasinine” is frequently more like it.
Dylan O’Brien (“The Maze Runner”) graduates from the YA ranks capably enough as Mitch Rapp, a young lover bent on revenge after Muslim extremists shoot up the Spanish resort where he’s just proposed to his girlfriend (Charlotte Vega). Fast-forward from this jarringly topical opener, and he’s a brooding, bearded obsessive who’s transformed himself into a lethal, Islam-attuned master infiltrator. (Hard to figure how he crams this much morphing into 18 short months, even if late source novelist Vince Flynn actually imagined the time frame being tighter.)
Mitch is on the verge of getting even when the CIA busts in on a retribution scheme he’s pulling, killing the target and forcibly enlisting Mitch’s vigilante talents.
The resulting conflict over preempted vengeance packs dramatic potential, but the filmmakers don’t seem particularly interested. Instead, Mitch’s new agency boss (unconvincing Sanaa Lathan) ships him to a black-ops boot camp run by hard case Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, working to lend the character an edge that the name sure doesn’t).
Stan makes like Yoda with a garotte, brutally cautioning Mitch against letting emotion drive him. Mitch doesn’t listen. They head to the Middle East and then Rome, pursuing renegade Iranians talking nukes with “the Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), a Stan trainee gone maniacally rogue. Kitsch’s resemblance to O’Brien shrewdly enhances the theme. Stan the hypocrite growls more warnings, echoed by feeble what-he-saids from Langley. Mitch doesn’t listen.
Director Michael Cuesta offered a far smarter take on CIA maneuverings in the journalism-based true story “Kill the Messenger.”
Here the landscape is prone to turning farcical. But there’s an upside to all the loose-cannon nonsense: action that feels authentically harsh, not just as it’s played by O’Brien and Kitsch, but also by Shiva Negar, as a deceptively dangerous Middle Eastern operative. You will wince, guaranteed.
You’ll also be entertained, as intended, by Keaton summoning every ounce of “Beetlejuice”-vintage crazy for a turn as torture victim. Like his character, he’s all about doing whatever circumstances warrant.
Directed by Michael Cuesta. Written by Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, based on the novel by Vince Flynn. Starring Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Taylor Kitsch, Sanaa Lathan. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 111 minutes. R (strong violence throughout, torture, language, brief nudity).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.