Is Mitch Rapp, a mercenary turned CIA counterterrorism operative, cinema's next Jason Bourne or James Bond or Jack Reacher? Lionsgate and CBS Films certainly hope he is. Late author Vince Flynn created the character and featured him in more than a dozen best-selling novels, so there's plenty of source material to work with for future films. But first, Rapp must impress at the worldwide box office and bring in enough cash to justify any sequels. Based on this solid, if not spectacular, rookie outing, American Assassin, moviegoers will likely be seeing a lot more of Rapp in the future.
We first encounter a love-struck Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) proposing to his girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega), in the surf off Ibiza. Moments later, terrorists open fire on the beach. Katrina and several others are gunned down, and Rapp is wounded. Flash forward 18 months. Rapp is now in Rhode Island, training himself in martial arts, weapons, and Arabic, and making contact with the Libyan cell responsible for Katrina's murder. He's bent on revenge, but his actions attract the attention of the CIA, which recruits him, despite one official calling him "a Section 8 with an axe to grind." They send him off to train with gruff ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (a fine Michael Keaton), who warns Rapp to never let the mission get personal or else it will get him killed. Of course, Rapp doesn't heed his advice. With him, everything is personal.
Soon, Hurley and Rapp team with a gorgeous Turkish agent (Shiva Negar) when 15 kilos of weapons-grade plutonium are stolen from a Russian facility. They believe Iranians are behind the theft and that they intend to build a nuclear bomb to launch an attack against Israel. Making the case more personal for Hurley is the fact that an American agent he trained years ago, nicknamed Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, intense and terrifying), may be involved. When the two adversaries eventually meet, it yields one of the movie's best and most nerve-jangling scenes, in which the former pupil tortures his one-time mentor, only to be one-upped by a bit of Hannibal Lecter-like brutality. It all culminates in a white-knuckle showdown involving a speedboat and a U.S. naval fleet that chillingly demonstrates the deadly power of a nuclear explosion.
Although directed by Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger) and written by a Hollywood Who's Who of screenwriters (Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz), American Assassin isn't in the same league as the best Bourne or Bond movies. It does boast slick, aggressive action sequences, and its extensive globetrotting locales (the movie was filmed in the U.S., England, Italy, Malta and Thailand) add considerable eye-catching authenticity. But O'Brien, best known for Teen Wolf and the Maze Runner flicks, is the main attraction and is a rising star. Unfortunately, he isn't called upon to do much more here other than look ticked off and mercilessly kill bad guys. However, if given the chance his Rapp could evolve into a full-bodied, intriguing character, and the films featuring him could become a lucrative franchise.
American Assassin is pure pulp and disposable. But it is also a thrilling roller-coaster ride, with just enough twists and turns to keep moviegoers on edge and satisfied. Rapp and Hurley are a killer combo. Here's hoping this is just the first of many adventures the two embark on.