American Assassin – Revenge, Wasted Potential, and Refrigerators

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American Assassin is a fine enough modern spy movie. It’s got nukes, European car chases, evil Middle Eastern terrorists, MMA style fight scenes, and femme fatales. It is generic, and fine, except for the one if the most driven, hard working, crazy protagonists ever.

For context, Dylan O’Brien plays Mitch, a new recruit to a secret CIA ops team. He was taken in after he trains for months to get revenge for the death of his fiancée, and parents (who were killed adjacent to the terrorists). Once he gets on the team he must stop a nuclear bomb from going off, as well as take out a group of Iranian terrorists.

The coolest element of the movie is Mitch’s dedication and hard work. He gets to CIA levels of skill and training on his own, and gets close to a terrorist cell without any help. That is a strong drive for revenge. It is also incredibly dangerous. When the CIA, and his instructor Hurley, played by Michael Keaton, take him in he honed into a weapon of pure instinct.

That is terrifying.

The movie kind of agrees. There is plenty of surface level talk about the dangers of being so revenge driven, and the toll that takes on a person. It is also critical of how the US uses those kinds of people in its villain, Ghost. It is almost fitting if the film was actually more than just that. Best and worse part of all, it wouldn’t have taken too much.

There is a lot of discussion in the merit of digging deeper in the psyche of trained killers. Some people really see it as taking away the fun in those kind of characters. I mean, if a movie spent 2 hrs explaining why James Bond kind of sucks, and is a monster, it would be no fun. The issue I find with that argument is how rewarding it can be to add a dimension of self-doubt and criticism to that work. This movie is fine, but if it was more openly critical of what Mitch went through it would be better.

See, Mitch trains, goes to extremes, and breaks orders and regulations to get the job done. It is undoubtedly effective. It is a power fantasy. It is also scary. Those rules, regulations, and orders are there for a reason. He just gets lucky with his skills that he doesn’t have to pay the price for that behavior. Again, that is almost cool, but loses possible, more interesting story threads.

One section of the movie has Mitch go on his own to stop a weapons dealer after the initial mission failed. He infiltrates the hotel, gets the to dealer, sees the person who killed his fiancée, and kills him. That single flash could say two things. One, he’s racist, and sees all Middle Eastern people as bad guys (something that could also be explored, but isn’t), OR, he is doing this out of revenge or vengeance.

A more critical take would have him fail that mission because he was driven by the wrong factors. Something I would say the movie would agree with considering what it wants to do. That failure would also lead to maybe changing up the next acts to have him really see why he can’t go on emotion, or deal with more threats, or be physically injured. All more interesting story directions (this is an example. There could be more ideas). It is fine the way it is, but could have been way more interesting.

Though, it could have been interesting in more ways than that. That other way being the motive for Mitch’s revenge.

It is kind of taken for granted that revenge stories staring men feature the death of a female love interest. It’s called fridging. It’s something I talked about recently on the deep dive into Dexter season eight (interesting how the director of this movie directed the first season of Dexter, a season where Dexter is very self-analyzing, and critical, that also has an evil version of the protagonist). It’s main use is to promote male development at the expense of a female character. That happens in this movie. It is the change in status quo that gets Mitch going. His fiancée is killed when terrorists raid a beach (for some reason… so the plot can happen, I guess). In the film, it’s fine, but not necessary. We learn later that his parents were seemingly killed by terrorists accidentally. That is double motivation for seemingly no reason. In fact, his fiancée’s death is only ever used to make him act upset, something that could, again, be done by focusing on his parents death.

The better way to explain it is if Bruce Wayne had his parents die, then had his girlfriend die, then he decided to become Batman. It’s clunky for no reason, and wastes a character… something it does twice because…

Whoops, there is a second not-love interest, spy he works with that is killed by the villain for no reason. Well, there is a reason, but no reason that couldn’t be done by just injuring her and not killing her. In fact, that death does not really drive Mitch any more than the death of his fiancée, making it feel extra useless. They just killed her for no reason.

A counter argument to that is a feminist one. Feminism looks to treat women equally. That is a good thing. Women should equal to men on every social level. But, in media, that is not the case. Women die for shock value and character development for the men way more than the reverse. Wanting women to be treated equally is good, but historically they have not been. Therefore killing them is pushing an old trope that is not needed.

These criticisms are kind of moot. The movie is fine enough. You want a decent action/spy thing to watch and ignore a global pandemic or something it is fine. I just think relying on those tropes, and shallow character work means the movie wasted its potential.

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