Pursed lips with eyes tightly squinting into the camera. The wrinkles of his forehead become pronounced. The molars of his bottom and upper jaw press together. He inhales through his clenched jaw as his incisors are on the verge of collapsing under pressure. He exhales and the wrinkles of his eyes take on a new shape. And that’s when he says it. A ridiculous, manic, and absolutely self-gratifying “fuck you” so out of context with the rest of Michael Cuesta’s American Assassin that for one fleeting moment you believe you may be watching an entirely different movie. For one brief moment you surrender your preoccupations with the film’s regressive jingoistic politics and narrative banalities and simply embrace what you see: Michael Keaton hamming it up.
Of course, we’re talking about literally one memorable moment of American Assassin’s runtime. The remainder of the film’s cortex-withering ~110 minute runtime consists of a barely functional narrative involving international terrorists, nuclear bombs, and revenge. Consider the film’s absurd opening passage that stages the narrative trajectory of the picture: Mitch (Dylan O’Brien) and his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) are enjoying a beach resort before he pops the question. She says yes. Of course, the resort ends up getting taken over by terrorists as they begin slaying tourists. There goes Katrina, standing absent-mindedly amid the chaos as Mitch catches sight of her the very moment she’s gunned down. Cut to several months later and we see our new Mitch: disheveled with requisite beard and beady eyes. Boy’s gonna kill terrorists, see, and so he’s training in MMA combat (he takes things too far says the gym’s trainer) and chucking knives in his studio apartment. All these moments come across as comical, so absolutely bizarre and unnatural and un-human. But Cuesta and the coterie of writers assigned to adapt Vince Flynn’s source novel refrain from highlighting these comic interludes. This is a gray-tinted, saturnine, capital S Serious film.
It’s one thing for American Assassin to be joyless and stupid. It’s another thing for it to be so dull. Most of this has to do with Marcus Shakesheff’s lethargic fight choreography and Enrique Chediak’s dimly lit compositions. The film’s action sequences lack both clarity and fluidity, so often registering as a stiff exchange between characters under cover of darkness. Its attempts at spectacle are even more befuddling, which includes a particularly ugly sequence at sea involving a nuclear bomb that’s so self-contained and remarkably insipid that you have to wonder how this direct-to-video schlock could even make it into cineplexes at all. One can imagine, in the not-so-distant future, that American Assassin will appear alongside the likes of The Dark Tower, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, or The Mummy in one of those compact quadruple-feature DVD sets intended for dude-bros or middle age fathers. And even that’s too good for it.