I discovered Vince Flynn’s thrillers a couple of books into the series starring his hero, Mitch Rapp. Rapp was Jack Ryan on steroids, a better version of Jason Bourne than in the Robert Ludlum books. After I finished that book, I went back and read all the previous books he’d written, then continued to read Flynn’s new novels. As an author, Flynn’s personal story resonated with me. He hadn’t set out to be an writer; his degree was in economics, and he’d been hired by Kraft Foods after graduation as a sales and account specialist. Two years later he gave up his job for a chance at a commission as a Marine aviator, only to be scrubbed because of concussions he’d had as a child that cause seizures. Back he went to sales for another company.
A dyslexic, Flynn struggled with reading when young. He fought the condition by forcing himself to reading novels, including both Clancy and Ludlum. After he washed out of the Marines, Flynn had the idea for his own novel that he worked on while keeping his regular job. After a couple of years, he decided to go all in on writing. He left both his job and his native Minnesota to move to Colorado where he wrote full-time while supporting himself on part-time jobs like bartending. Five years passed. He finished the novel, but he received over 60 rejections of the manuscript from agents and publishers. Frustrated with the traditional publishing route, he decided to self-publish the book, years before Amazon and the internet made self-publishing common. In this, he followed a similar path to John Grisham’s start as a writer, though he didn’t have Grisham’s law practice for support. The book “Term Limits” became a bestseller in the Twin Cities and helped him land an agent and a contract with Pocket Books. Their edition of “Term Limits” became a New York Times bestseller. In his follow-up, “Transfer of Power,” Flynn introduced his signature character: CIA operative and covert warrior Mitch Rapp. All of Flynn’s books hit the NYT Bestseller list, and the 9th book, 2007’s “Protect and Defend,” became the first of his regular appearances at the top of the chart.
By 2007 the Jack Ryan movie franchise had already been through one attempted reboot with Ben Affleck, while that year saw the third Bourne movie released with a domestic gross of over $200 million. CBS Films optioned the Mitch Rapp series, but like the first book it took years for Mitch Rapp to appear on the big screen. It’s strange, since the first Rapp novel, “Transfer of Power,” dealt with the White House being taken over by terrorists. It would have made a better movie than either White House Down or Olympus Has Fallen.
Originally a later book was planned as the source for the first movie, but in 2010 Flynn published “American Assassin,” a prequel that told Rapp’s origin story. It gave producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura the chance to start at the beginning. The highly-respected team of Ed Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz were brought on to do the script, with Zwick directing, but that attempt didn’t get off the ground. Another director was recruited and the script was revised by Michael Finch, a more pedestrian screenwriter (Predators, Hitman: Agent 47). Again, the production didn’t gel. Finally, with the movie option about to expire, a fourth writer took a crack at the script: Stephen Schiff, a producer and writer for the outstanding FX series “The Americans.” The directing assignment was given to Michael Cuesta, who’d begun his career with the well-received 2001 movie L.I.E. and subsequently produced and directed episodes of “Six Feet Under,” “Dexter,” “Elementary,” and “Homeland,” among other projects.
Early on Chris Hemsworth was attached to play Rapp, but that fell through. Instead, when the production finally came together, Dylan O’Brien was cast. O’Brien’s in his early twenties, which matched Rapp’s age in the book and would allow him to play the role convincingly if it became a franchise. O’Brien came to prominence in a supporting role on the MTV series “Teen Wolf,” then landed the main role in the Maze Runner trilogy. He suffered a serious injury that landed him in the hospital during the filming of the final installment, which pushed back that movie’s release date to next year. He came to the American Assassin production after recuperating. In fact, the beard he wears early in the movie was grown while he was recovering.
The movie opens with a moment of happiness for Rapp as he proposes to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) in the surf at a Spanish resort. The happiness is blown away by a brutal terrorist attack on the vacationers that leaves Mitch wounded and Katrina dead. A year and a half later, Mitch, obsessed with killing those behind the attack, has honed his skills with weapons and hand-to-hand combat. His attempts to gain access to a terrorist cell as a supposed recruit brings him to the attention of the CIA, in particular deputy operations chief Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). She convinces CIA Director Stansfield (David Suchet) to let her recruit Rapp for a black-ops unit run by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Soon Rapp’s drawn into the field and paired with a female Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar) in an operation to take down an arms dealer. But the mission changes when they learn the dealer’s client is a former operative of Hurley’s, Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who’s gone over to the dark side.
Vince Flynn’s devotees have been hoping for a movie for years – I know I have – so the question is, does American Assassin satisfy that hope? The answer is, sort of. The script is a bit of a mishmash after all the different versions its gone through. Kitsch handles the physical action but isn’t compelling as a villain. It’s a role where you need the menace of Jarvier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall, and that’s far beyond Kitsch’s ability. On the plus side, the script does capture some of the feel of the Rapp books. The set pieces are thrilling and sharply filmed, and the movie makes good use of shooting on-location in Europe.
But the best part is the acting of O’Brien, Keaton, and Lathan. O’Brien does well as Rapp, who on the surface is a blunt instrument but who also has depth, and Keaton is dead-on as the ice-Cold Warrior Hurley. After pretty much disappearing from movies for years, Keaton has come back with a vengeance with Birdman, Spotlight, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now American Assassin. In the books, Kennedy is pure Ivy League spy, but Sanaa Lathan makes you forget that and completely accept her in the role. Shiva Negar is compelling in the role of Annika, and I was delighted to see David Suchet in the role of Stansfield. It’s a small role, but Suchet always makes his roles memorable.
Personally, I hope they continue the series. Even with Bond, it took three times for the series to strike gold with Goldfinger. The film did a bit better than expected at the box office for its opening weekend, making about $16 million including early showings on Thursday. That was enough for a solid second-place at the box office, behind the juggernaut of Stephen King’s It, and in line with the opening for John Wyck.
Sadly, Vince Flynn can’t share in the pleasure of seeing his creation adapted for the movies. He passed away from prostate cancer in 2013 at the age of 48. But the character he created is living on, both on the page with new novels written by thriller author Kyle Mills, as well as with American Assassin. After the struggle to get his voice heard, it’s fitting that Flynn’s stories go on.