The American (2010) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA rated: R for violence, sexual content, nudity, and language
Running time: 105 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Johan Leysen, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenplay: Rowan Joffe (based on the book, "A Very Private Gentleman", by Martin Booth)
Review published December 1, 2012
Anton Corbijn (Control) directs this visually appealing tale, adapted from the 1990 Martin Booth novel, "A Very Private Gentleman," of a burn-out professional assassin who, after seeing his latest mission in Sweden go askew, begins to struggle with feelings of loneliness and morality in a field that has no room for either while laying low, working on the latest hit in rural Italy. It's a melancholy piece, but absorbing in its character portrayals, culminating into a climax that packs a good deal of tension, even though the film is too downbeat and methodical to be considered a proper action film.
George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air) stars as the titular hitman named Jack, whose latest assignment isn't one where he is to do the actual killing. Instead, he will use his expertise to smuggle in and put together a custom sniper rifle to be used in a highly critical assassination to be carried out by a highly skilled female assassin named Mathilde (Reuten, In Bruges).
Hiding out in a small Italian village, Jack is tailed by a local priest (Bonacelli, MI3) who sees something in the American and his checkered past that few can. Jack spends his lonely days working on weaponry, and on the occasional night off, he goes in for the brothel, where he finds a certain romantic feeling when he is with a beautiful prostitute named Clara (Placido, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance). Jack's boss (Leysen, Brotherhood of the Wolf) thinks he is beginning to get sloppy, and with visions of impending retaliation waking him in the middle of the night, Jack is certainly perpetually on edge, not knowing who to trust anymore in a world where he has no real allies.
Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later, Brighton Rock) provides the sparse adaptation that is cold and aloof, yet full of interesting emotions, particularly as the film begins to pick up speed toward the explosive finale. The cinematography by Martin Ruhe (Harry Brown, The Countess) is a true standout, especially in his use of color and light to give the effect of desolation and emptiness all around.
With such peacefulness, beauty and friendship around, it does create an atmosphere that appeals to Jack at this point of his career to stay -- stay longer, and perhaps stay forever. And yet, reality keeps interjecting, as the life he's chosen doesn't always allow for clean breaks when enemies want to retaliate, and cohorts want to eliminate loose ends. His softening nature might make him too soft to keep his wits sharp.
The American will not be to every taste. Viewers expecting lots of action or perpetual thrills may be disappointed that the movie is more of a slow-fuse character piece, where the effect of the job on a man's psyche is more emphasized than the nature or importance of the job itself. Though it stars a big Hollywood star in Clooney, the film itself has an old-fashioned art-house vibe to it that many audiences are no longer in tune to. But the artfulness is there, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. The allusions to butterflies when pertaining to Jack evoke the beauty of freedom, instead of the self-imposed cocoon of the assassination game. Jack so desperately wants escape, but may be too entrenched for flight.
An homage to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West gives a nod to the brooding feeling of the film, which is full of amoral, taciturn characters continuously playing a game that is little more than a downward slide of despair, and the only hope of winning is to be the last man standing.
©2012 Vince Leo