Kevin: Based on that headline you might be thinking I’m going to say that “American Assassin,” the Michael Keaton-Dylan O’Brien thriller that came out last September, is a bad film; actually no, if nothing else it’s at least watchable and at times pretty good. In a landscape of bland PG-13 action, the film is a nice B-movie throwback to the days of clearly staged R-rated violence, while Keaton has a lot of fun as a grizzled former Navy SEAL who helps turns protagonist Mitch Rapp from a cocky would-be terrorist-hunter to the kind of hero who can carry his own movie franchise. Unfortunately it also features British martial arts badass Scott Adkins, and while normally that would be a good thing, it’s not when one of the best action stars working today has to play second-fiddle to a kid from MTV’s “Teen Wolf”:
We’ve previously discussed Adkins’ impressive speed and physicality in our review of his recent period action piece “Savage Dog” (currently available on Netflix), while his martial artistry can be seen in a number of well-choreographed fights in films such as “Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning,” “Hard Target 2,” “Close Range,” and “Ninja” and its sequel, “Ninja: Shadow of a Tear”:
His skills as a fighter, combined with movie star looks and charisma, should have already guaranteed him a starring role in a major theatrically released showcase like “American Assassin” by now, rather than the low-budget Direct-to-Video films Adkins has been toiling in for years. Instead our hero in this is played by “Maze Runner” star Dylan O’Brien, who is likable enough and does his best, but can’t help coming off at times like Justin Bieber trying to play Jack Bauer.
In the film O’Brien plays a CIA recruit who vows to take down a Muslim terrorist cell after his super-hot girlfriend is shot during an attack. In the same way “The Lincoln Lawyer” pitted Matthew McConaughey against one-time McConaugh-wannabe Josh Lucas, in “American Assassin” O’Brien also eventually faces off with a fellow covert operator gone rogue played by Taylor Kitsch, who five years ago was groomed by Hollywood to be the next big thing just like O’Brien, before then going 0-3 with “John Carter,” “Battleship,” and “Savages.” Kitsch seems to play his character with a Texas accent, so if you’re fan of “Friday Night Lights” you can have fun imagining that this is what eventually happened to Riggins after graduation. Also, weirdly this is his third movie, after “Battleship” and “Lone Survivor,” in which Kitsch has played a Naval officer/SEAL.
Side note: As someone who really liked him on “Friday Night Lights,” I’ve always thought it was unfair that Disney having to write off its losses on “John Carter” was sort of placed at Kitsch’s feet, whereas a few years later the studio had to do the same thing after “Tomorrowland” bombed and somehow this never tarnished George Clooney’s status as supposedly one of the most bankable movie stars in Hollywood.)
Anyway, before Rapp can get his man, he has to first be honed into a finely tuned killing machine by Keaton’s tough-as-nails instructor Hurley. That includes squaring off at one point with a fellow recruit played by Adkins, but before you get excited about the idea of the star getting to showcase his moves in a higher-profile flick than he usually gets, just know that the following clip is the only time we see him in action:
As bad as it is that Adkins has to seriously pull his punches here, the filmmakers add insult to injury by having him tap out. Are you kidding me! Listen I give credit to O’Brien for obviously doing a lot of his own stunts, and as a fighter he’s a lot more convincing than Matt “if we edit this fight incoherently enough people won’t know I’m a puss” Damon in the Bourne movies, but this is more absurd than Paul Walker defeating Tony Jaa TWICE in “Furious 7.”
Actually as we noted with “Gymkata,” this is another movie in which the guys who are training the hero are way more qualified and impressive; I actually would prefer to see an entire movie based around Keaton’s character. Either way, before the movie is even halfway over Adkins is easily killed by Kitsch, and we spend the rest of the film watching some well-staged fights that would be a million times cooler if instead of a skinny pretty boy, they featured the guy who can do shit like this:
Maybe it’s because CJ and I just got back from seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Sudden Death” on the big screen (review next week), but it’s hard not to imagine how big a star Adkins could have been during the golden age of big studio, wide release action flicks in the early ‘90s. Again, “American Assassin” is a perfectly good time-waster, but with a legit badass in the lead it could have been a classic. Putting Scott Adkins in a movie with a lot of fight scenes and then leaving him on the sidelines is like keeping Tom Brady on the bench in favor of Johnny Manziel’s drunker cousin.
Post Script: While Keaton is surprisingly convincing as a fearsome take-no-shit warrior, when they mentioned that he was a former SEAL, I had to laugh a bit remembering that this is what macho chiseled Navy SEAL Michael Keaton would have looked like during that time: