American Assassin Review: A Look at Conflict and Character Development
Discovering the World of Mitch Rapp
My interest in American Assassin began several months ago with the debut of the trailer for its new film adaptation. After watching the trailer, I did a little research on the book series and decided it was worth checking out. Although American Assassin was not the first book published in Vince Flynn's series, it is the first story chronologically. It explores the origins of Mitch Rapp and how he came to be one of America's most lethal CIA operatives. The novel was definitely a great introduction, and I can now say I am certainly a fan of the series. Despite the differences that usually appear between screen adaptations and their literary source material, I've discovered that the two mediums can still often complement each other and create a richer storytelling experience than either could alone.
American Assassin, thankfully, accomplishes this.
Although the movie departs from the book in terms of overall plot (which may perturb some purists), it does retain enough core elements to bring Mitch Rapp and his world to life effectively on screen. To the film's credit, I feel certain changes actually enhance the enjoyment of the material when viewed through an eye familiar with both versions.
I admit my opinion may not carry significant clout, considering I am new to the Mitch Rapp series. By the time I saw the movie, I had only finished American Assassin and its chronological sequel, Kill Shot. With over a dozen books left to read, there's still much to learn about Rapp's full character and motivations. On the plus side, however, I can concentrate on fledgling Rapp's early career without the distraction of being jaded.
Taking all this into account, I will now examine a few aspects of the movie and novel I found particularly interesting regarding character development.
A Matter of Perspective
Based on American Assassin and Kill Shot, I'm assuming the remainder of the Rapp series uses shifting points of view to move the plot. Given the broad scope of events, it's understandable and somewhat necessary that the action unfolds through eyes other than Rapp's. This method produces more well-rounded secondary characters, and it gives the world a quality of real-life authenticity. The author is also better able to create a certain mystique about Rapp by not following his personal agenda too closely and letting his legend grow via the people around him.
The film adaptation does a great job of capturing this by presenting Rapp as a man of few words. It also affords the supporting cast comparably generous amounts of screen time, particularly Stan Hurley and Irene Kennedy. While I hold no illusions that this allocation, especially in favor of Hurley, may be due to factors such as star billing and the contributions of an actor like Michael Keaton, the circumstance nonetheless permits the story to unfold in a manner similar to that of the novels by letting the narrative be just as much about the secondary characters as it is about Rapp. This approach, Hollywood's motivations considered, may also contribute to the primary focus of this article, namely how alternate takes can create new and noteworthy dynamics between the players in terms of central conflict and character development.
The Enemy at the Gate
One change readers will note and likely have mixed opinions about is the relationship between Rapp and Hurley. While the film does acknowledge tension between the two, it never rises to the level present in the books. There, one can almost describe their sentiments for one another as bordering on pure hatred. Hurley is a proud man, and Rapp, through his formidable abilities and tendency to disobey, has no problem checking his ego at every turn. As a result they are constantly at odds, both directly and indirectly. Others outside the conflict rightfully attribute this antagonism to the fact that the two are so much alike. They believe that Hurley, beneath his bravado, dislikes Rapp because he represents the man Hurley no longer is and perhaps was ultimately incapable of being.
The film, however, chooses to take a more traditional teacher-student approach to their interaction. Here, Hurley has more patience with Rapp's insubordination, even though it concerns him. He has greater control over himself and engages the young man's vigor with a knowing touch of the paternal.
While the book version of Hurley is no doubt a standout character, he may not always come across as particularly likable, considering the way he interacts with Rapp. The movie maintains his tough exterior while adding justifiable method to his sometimes extreme actions and perceptions. Here, Hurley is not so quick to want to dismiss Rapp solely for lack of discipline or out of jealousy. They have an understanding and shared purpose that pushes past their personal differences. While this bonds their characters overall, it also, unfortunately, removes the weight of a key event in both versions of American Assassin.
This moment occurs in the final rescue mission in which Rapp goes after the abducted Hurley. Given their change in relationship, Rapp is no longer choosing to save a man he hates, and Hurley is not suffering the indignity of having a man he likewise loathes rescue him. This is a pivotal moment for both characters in the novel, and the repercussions bleed over into Kill Shot. That story relies heavily on the possibility that the personal animosity between Rapp and Hurley might cause either to turn on each other under the right circumstances.
The film goes far to remove the heart of this conflict by insisting personal grievances should never compromise one's duty. While this concept is also prevalent in the books, the characters do not slavishly follow their own credo. This creates an element of external drama that is somewhat lacking between these specific characters in the film. In lieu of this, however, the movie chooses to emphasize internal conflicts to allow character motivations to surface thematically.
The Demon Within
Immediately, the American Assassin film steps out on its own by making the catalyst for Rapp's transformation far more personal. Unlike the novel, which has Rapp experience the death of his girlfriend via a news story reporting the bombing of her plane by terrorists, the movie has her gunned down minutes after he proposes to her on a public beach. During the slaughter, Rapp receives multiple wounds but avoids close range execution when one of the terrorists instead chooses to shoot Rapp's fiancée right in front of him.
The trauma is visceral in a way a secondhand account can't hope to duplicate, and the recollection irreparably fractures Rapp. His subsequent training with Hurley only aggravates his condition. In two scenes that do not appear in the book, Hurley orchestrates staged sequences intended to immerse Rapp and his fellow recruits in situations that mirror potential real-life field scenarios.
The first of these involves a physical set, and the recruits have a single target to locate. The exercise ends when Rapp detects a bit of misdirection involving an additional enemy agent disguised as a pregnant woman and proceeds to eliminate her with his training weapon before she can get to Victor, a fellow recruit who had been eyeing the primary target. He punishes her mercilessly and earns Hurley's disapproval, despite having accomplished the true goal by seeing through the ruse. Rapp shows more than a glimpse of his true colors here and demonstrates an underlying ruthless temperament.
While the brutality of his assault might be forgivable with the knowledge that Rapp was aware none of it was real, the act nonetheless reveals a strong leaning toward recklessness regarding Rapp's engagement with his peers and potentially civilians, especially since the actor he pelted was portraying a pregnant woman. He attacks without conscience and reservation if the job requires it. This revelation, however, pales in comparison to the quality Rapp shows during the next training exercise.
Now wearing electric shock gear, the recruits memorize photos of targets they are to take down on sight. Unlike the previous exercise, however, this scenario occurs through virtual reality and uses headsets that project crowds of people surrounding the recruits in an otherwise empty space. The people from the images they saw are the only ones they have permission to shoot. The consequences for firing at anyone else or "death" at the hands of their true targets will result in the recruit receiving a more than generous jolt of electricity.
Although he remains focused initially, Rapp soon unravels when Hurley begins showing him the terrorist responsible for his fiancée's murder. Rapp continues to shoot at this image, despite receiving punishing voltage for each infraction. The electric surges dominate as the other recruits vomit and see their limbs become temporarily useless due to their failures. Rapp suffers, but he can't stop firing at the specter, even when shock-induced pain brings him to his knees.
This differs from the first exercise in that Rapp is now the one punishing himself without remorse – physically and psychologically. Like the previous scenario, Rapp knows this is all fake, but his emotions make the conflict real – to him. While Hurley ultimately pulls the strings during the simulation, there's no indication that malice encourages him (which would no doubt have played a part had this been the novel's version of Hurley). Also, there is no sign that Rapp is acting for any reason other than to destroy the nightmare afflicting him. He's not thinking about Hurley or disobeying orders for the hell of it. The damage to Rapp's psyche is just so severe that he can't stop himself.
This is a direct parallel to the torture scene involving Hurley later in the film. There, he must suffer at the hands of a "Ghost" in the flesh. In defiance of his captor, Hurley likewise takes a beating and invites more damage upon himself. Although this represents a thematic callback to connect Rapp and Hurley, their conflicts are not quite the same. The difference is that Hurley fights a battle he can potentially win, desperate though the situation may be. It's possible to draw blood or even escape and seize the opportunity to kill the man in front of him.
Rapp is the recipient of no such blessing, and he is facing a man he can never kill.
His only recourse is to attack the tangible ideals the man represents. Unfortunately, that corporeal threat is never-ending, and the circumstance stands as both a gift and a curse.
As the recruits (by then free of their virtual reality glasses) look at Rapp toppled over in the distance still desperately unloading his weapon into the shadows, you as an audience member can finally understand the truth that makes this guy so tragically dangerous, whether in books or on screen:
You can't hurt a man when he's willing to hurt himself more than you ever could.
Consequently, in light of his internal struggle, Mitch Rapp becomes the only person who can stop Mitch Rapp.
I'm not so much of a purist that I can't appreciate changes that ultimately work in context. I feel American Assassin functions effectively as a whole, despite any subjective missteps anyone can think to raise against it.
With that said, though, the writers have definitely backed themselves into a corner if they're planning to make Kill Shot. For reasons I discussed above and others I have not mentioned (but readers will know instantly), several plot elements will need to go through significant changes for that sequel to be possible. The fact that such alterations will even be necessary is an understandable critique regarding the construction of American Assassin, assuming (as is only likely) the intention was to kickstart a franchise based on the remaining books. In that respect, I choose to reserve judgment until I see the fruits of future labor.
For what it is, however, I find American Assassin to be an enjoyable movie on many levels. I'm sure a second viewing will reveal even more. In the meantime, I'll be starting Transfer of Power and seeing what lies ahead for Mitch Rapp.