This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Michael Cuesta
Genre: Thriller, Action
Picture a white American man who experienced a tragic and life-changing event at the hands of terrorists and is recruited by the CIA to seek revenge. Unfortunately, this is far too easy to conceptualize considering there are at least three movies narratively similar to this made every year. AMERICAN ASSASSIN manages to be no exception. It does, however, stand out from the rest of the pro-America war films in that it is probably the most offensive one I have seen in recent years.
The terrorists are, you guessed it, Muslim. While the terrorists are jihadists, blatant Islamic images, obvious Quran references, and ISIS-esque video clips embedded in the movie simply support Islamophobic rhetoric and racism. As the opening scene unfolded in front of me—images of a wholesome white-American romance ruined by jihadist terror attacks—I immediately rolled my eyes, slumped down into my seat, and took it as a warning for what was to come. The CIA agents travel to Turkey and Iran, countries that cable news won’t let go of, not to mention that all the nuclear physicists and terrorists are the exact image of a Middle Eastern stereotype.
Dylan O’Brien’s startling post-Teen Wolf vibe
Despite all these obviously racist moments, there was one scene that bothered me far more than all the others. During a simulated CIA training session, the recruits must identify a terrorist in a crowd. The first person that the camera hovered on to pose as a potential terrorist was a Middle Eastern-looking man. This shot didn’t actively associate brown folks with terrorism (unlike the entire premise of this movie), but it capitalized on the concept that, as Americans, we already know that ambiguously ethnic people are definitely terrorists. I will give the writers the benefit of the doubt on this one, though. This shot could have easily been a very poorly executed opportunity for societal self-reflection, attempting to allow the audience to examine their own preconceived prejudices. Unfortunately, as an ethnically ambiguous brown folk, I didn’t buy it.
But don’t worry, the movie gets even more problematic! The lead character clearly suffers from PTSD due to his jihad-foiled-all-American-romance, but instead of using this as an opportunity to address the realities of PTSD and mental illness amongst war veterans, it romanticizes it. The lead’s PTSD drives his need for revenge and becomes a motive for killing the bad guy, eventually becoming a critical part of his (inevitable) success. This reinforces how society treats veterans as heroes while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the negative impacts of exactly what they’re being applauded for.
Actual image of Michael Keaton letting me down
Furthermore, despite AMERICAN ASSASSIN’s genre label as a “thriller,” it lacked that exact element. Dylan O’Brien’s character isn’t multi-dimensional, he’s just a terrible person. He’s selfish, refuses to listen to anyone, and wallows in his own self-pity. These traits are good starting places, but absolutely no character development occurs until the very end, so his attitude got exhausting very quickly. He also doesn’t have much to personally lose considering he’s already lost everything. Other than revenge, there was nothing else motivating him. Basically, all the potential thrills were completely lost on me because I didn’t care what happened to him at all.
The majority of these failed thrills were depicted through graphic and excessive amounts of violence. AMERICAN ASSASSIN was littered with shots of bullet wounds, warfare, torture, and death. I would normally defend violence in movies, but in this instance, there was no justification and no reason to include such frequent and graphic images. The whole movie felt like a cheap, cop-out thriller that only managed to get a single grimace out of me when Michael Keaton lost a few fingernails.
Another image of Dylan O’Brien holding a gun, which is about 80% of the movie anyways
AMERICAN ASSASSIN is not only uninspired and cliché, but also the absolute last movie that America needs at this moment in our history. It does no more than pander to our societal racism and xenophobia. It blatantly endorses and places value upon the criticized and internationally frowned upon aspects of our country.
I ask one thing of Hollywood: give us something new, something that will allow the audience to step outside of their subjectivity, something that will have a positive impact on this country. AMERICAN ASSASSIN fails in every regard.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend