The American – A Review

1 12 2010

George Clooney, The American

George Clooney in 'The American'

Films about assassins can generally go in one of two directions. They can either play up the inherent air of stylishness, mystery and glamour that we seem to associate with hit-men, or they can try to play these associations down, and instead show us contract killers as they really are: flawed, desperate and, more often than not, a little incompetent.

Most directors seem to plump wholeheartedly for Option A (Le Samourai, Leon, No Country For Old Men), and even those who opt for Option B (Ghost Dog, Grosse Pointe Blank, In Bruges) seem to find it difficult to let go entirely of the studied, self-conscious ‘cool’ that we associate with the genre.

Anton Corbijn, whose 2006 debut Control told the story of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, here finds himself with a foot in both camps too. On the one hand, George Clooney’s Jack is an archetypal cool-as-ice hit-man: methodical, isolated and ready to kill in cold blood at the drop of a hat. On the other, as he lies low in a small Italian town after a bloody opening shoot-out in Sweden, he is a man haunted by his past and by the realisation that, if he were to put his work to one side for just a moment, he would find a life with precious little else left in it to call his own.

Like the two assassins in In Bruges, Jack arrives in the town with instructions from his boss to lie low and keep himself to himself while the heat blows over. Almost because he has nothing else to do, he takes on one final job: the construction of a bespoke rifle and silencer for an unknown hit on an unknown target.

The town is medieval and perched on the top of a hill in the Italian countryside. When he’s not working away on the rifle or doing push-ups in his somewhat Spartan rented room, Jack whiles away the hours sipping coffee in local cafés (an Americano drinking Americanos) or wandering the quiet cobbled streets alone.

Gradually though, and against the advice of his boss, he starts to make friends of a sort, first with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who invites him to supper, and then with prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), whose services he seeks out. All the while, a net of sorts seems to be closing in almost imperceptibly on the assassin, with fresh strangers arriving in the town, and fresh dangers lurking around the corners of its twisty back streets.

Well weapon. Clooney builds a gun

Anton Corbijn started his career as a photographer, and The American is full of arresting, well-composed, and downright moody images. The downbeat, wintry tones of the photography match perfectly the mood of the piece, as Jack hangs around the town, trying not to get too involved with anyone or think too hard about his predicament.

Clooney is certainly less likeable we’re accustomed to. In the opening minutes, we see him committing a particularly brutal murder and, for the first half of the film at least, that trademark Dr. Ross twinkle is almost entirely suppressed by a air of callous and matter-of-fact efficiency. Jack is brusque in his dealings with people and happy to be mistaken for the most brazenly philistine kind of American tourist; despite trying to pass himself off as a photographer on assignment he has, he tells the priest, no interest in Italian history or in Italian people either.

We realise of course that this is a necessary mask, and that the greatest danger for the professional hit-man lies in forming attachments, friendships or, God forbid, relationships with other people. In this regard, Jack is remarkably similar to Ryan Bingham, Clooney’s character in last year’s Up In the Air, and there are quite a few other similarities between the two films’ stories of alienated, disengaged men being pulled back to earth with a bump by the strings of the human heart.

The American, George Clooney

"Hello, I'm a romantic sub-plot."

But if The American sets out to be candid about its main character’s failings and his lonely place in the world, it also goes along to an extent with the kind of romantic, stylised notion of the assassin that I mentioned earlier. Rather self-consciously it harks back to the stylishness of a certain kind of classic Italian and European cinema. So there’s a little bit of Sergio Leone in the stranger arriving in town, a little bit of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai in the dedicated, focused life that Jack leads, and a little bit of Bertolucci’s The Conformist there in the mix too. Classic noir-type dialogue rubs up against something more nuanced and psychologically ‘real’ in Clooney’s performance: by and large the film gets away with this mix, but it’s never entirely convincing or successful.

As a genre film, The American sticks pretty rigidly to a number of stock conventions and storylines. There are a couple of twists towards the end, for example, that I saw coming half an hour and ten minutes beforehand, respectively, and it’s always fairly obvious where the film is going. In particular, there’s something schematic and unconvincing about the assassin’s relationship with the priest and the conversations that they have about truth and morality. As a viewer you can sense the scriptwriter hard at work here; something that generally doesn’t make for good cinema.

So, in some ways The American works, and in other ways it doesn’t. I’ve mentioned some of the faults above, but it’s worth saying that the film is taut and stylish in a good way too, and that it distils nicely the kind of noir fatalism that we don’t too often see in the cinema today. For Clooney it’s not much of a stretch from Up In The Air, but still, it represents another step out of mainstream Hollywood movies and into the more interesting territory that lurks beyond.

And, as a final point, is it just me or does gorgeous George’s face briefly convulse into an uncanny imitation of Humphrey Bogart in the very last scene? I’ll let you be the judge of that, dear reader, should you choose to go and see this modest, interesting thriller.

The American is out now in UK cinemas

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