American Assassin (AA), starring Dylan O’Brien as the brooding, savage-skilled and impulsive assassin Mitch Rapp, who’s armed with a ferocious drive for payback, is a John Wick and Jason Bourne-esque franchise based on Vince Flynn‘s AA books. President George W. Bush admitted that Flynn’s books were, “A little too accurate.”
Mitch bathes in the heartfelt warmth of an accepted marriage proposal at a peaceful seaside resort where he’s buying drinks to take back to his fiancée Katrina who waits in the water when…chaos, gore, spurt, red sand, machine guns, death. Terrorists lead by Adnan Al-Mansur mow down vacationers with gut wrenching cold blooded hate. Bam! Mitch is shot. Blam! Blam! Inches away…Katrina dies. Revenge is the word.
On the surface, the Michael Cuesta directed American Assassin is a kung fu film about how Mitch finds a sifu to teach him the art of killing terrorists to fill the hole in his soul from Katrina’s death. Enter Hurley (Michael Keaton), an ex-Navy SEAL, CIA-trainer that teaches Rapp to never make killing personal. Yet Hurley ignores his own advice when he learns that his most trusted disciple, Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), has gone rogue and helps terrorists to go nuclear. It’s a young vs. old kung fu brother death duel, with the world’s safety at stake.
Yet below the surface, behind the scenes, when during the mandatory martial arts training actors must undertake as a means do their own fights, is where the real story exists.
On March 18, 2016, while shooting The Maze Runner: The Death Cure, O’Brien suffered a life threatening injury doing a stunt that went awry. As he was being pulled from a vehicle he was struck by another. Concussion, facial fractures, brain trauma. Production was halted and he withdrew from public view for six months as depression, fear and PTSD put him in a dark place. The accident made him question everything, recovery was overwhelming and he was uncertain if he’d ever be the same person again.
Prior to Death Cure, O’Brien was committed to star in American Assassin. To keep things on schedule, after the accident, the studio planned to resume filming March 18, it wasn’t going to happen. O’Brien told vulture.com he lost a lot of function in daily routine and couldn’t handle social situations let alone showing up and being responsible for work every day.
Wondering if he could make it through another project, at the end of July, he agreed to do American Assassin because over the months of hard recovery he forged a deeper connection with Mitch. But he was still in a fragile personal state as his id and ego argued if he could do it or not especially since he just recommitted to spending two months to get into physical shape, learn fight choreography and add muscle to a deteriorated body frame.
My good friend Roger Yuan was called in to work his magic.
He shares, “Dylan went through a horrific accident, had face reconstruction and in terms of blood pressure and heart rate, he was still recovering. I trained him physically and guided him on the emotional and psychological aspects of what he experienced so he wouldn’t be victimized by the accident and to use the hard parts of life as tools to become stronger.”
Dylan O’Brien recalls, “Sometimes I’d show up at the gym having a panic attack. Roger would say, ‘Let’s just go get breakfast.’ I can’t give him enough credit, he was there for me, not just like a trainer pushing me but cared more about my mind and the state that I was in.”
To give Mitch realism, Yuan taught Dylan O’Brien a wide range of fight skills, worked on physical movement and honed his agility, speed, power and precision. O’Brien learned grappling, boxing, kickboxing, yoga and weapon training from Yuan’s pal Buster Reeves.
As Dylan O’Brien built a sleekly adaptive body, Yuan thought about Mitch’s mind explaining, “We both wanted Mitch’s interior feelings of rage to come through physically, so Dylan and I talked a lot about how to use his anger and trauma in the way he fights.”
The more he trained, the more O’Brien keyed into the meditative, self-exploratory side of the combative arts, which he himself found transformational saying, “Roger was truly my sensei and a great friend throughout the whole process of preparing for and making this film. He got me in great physical shape but it was more about honing the mental side of things and that became really important to the portrait of Mitch.”
Dylan’s dad Patrick had never visited any of his sets but as time drew near to begin American Assassin and Dylan was still struggling with heavy emotional and psychological episodes, he was compelled to be on set. The first day of filming featured Mitch, months after Katrina’s death, venomously training and punching a heavy bag like crazy Africanized bees stinging an intruder.
Patrick had never seen Dylan like this and told vulture.com, “It was mind-blowing. I was concerned seeing the stress he put on his body, face and places that had been of concern of late. After the shot, I approached Dylan, almost nose-to-nose and I’m not sure if he saw me right away. I said, ‘Dylan? You okay?’ He said, ‘I’m good.'”
Though the choreography for O’Brien’s training with Hurley and close-quarter fights were simple, and had him perform a few techniques at a time, shot mostly with tight angles and earthquake-cam movements, on the few occasions when fight coverage included wide angles, it was evident Dylan O’Brien was struggling and uncomfortable with some movements.
Since this is a serious assassin film, there’s no humor or fancy over the top hand-to-hand combat skills, yet the fights worked as they were quick, simple and the techniques were effective brutal killing skills. According to my marine special ops and Navy SEAL pals, that’s the way those fight need to be based on the reality of what the film was selling.
As a man that almost died several times due to the lethal disease CF and daily having to fight just to survive, I understood O’Brien’s emotion of what he went through and I’ve definitely felt the positive nature that martial arts can have on one’s healing process.
Cuesta finally adds, “If he didn’t have the accident, would he have connected that well with Mitch? I don’t know, but it definitely brought truth to it.”