Directed by Anton Corbijn and starring George Clooney, The American is another of those laconic and iconic male characters, you know – the strong and silent type. While Corbijn’s style is a bit unique, the story of an assassin on his last job isn’t.
Corbijn takes his time getting into the story despite the lengthy pre-opening credits sequence of a shootout in Sweden that Jack survives and leaves three corpses behind. That’s no spoiler because – guess what: he wasn’t going to die in the first 10 minutes. Anyway, Corbijn’s style is to present scenes in a semi-detached manner, or without much in the way of exposition. He trusts you the viewer to be able to grow with the story and piece those seemingly stand alone scenes together.
Clooney as Jack, or Edward, or Mr. Butterfly, gives away nothing. He doesn’t answer questions directly or at all. It’s not so much that he is a brooding guy tormented by something from his past – in fact we never learn anything about his past. He’s kind of an enigma, and it seems that’s the way Jack wants it. An assassin can’t afford to make friends.
We know that Jack is an assassin and he wants out of the game. He wants out on his own terms, and at a time of his choosing. Arriving in Rome, Italy,(above) after fleeing Sweden, Jack meets his handler and is given a car and a safe house location to hide out in. After Jack tosses away the cell phone he’s been given, and has chosen another place to seclude himself in – a different hill town out in the Italian country, he is all about just passing the time.
He meets a local priest, Fr. Benedetto played wonderfully by Paolo Bonacelli. Jack also takes up with a prostitute called Clara played by Violante Placido (a very unique stage or character’s name – not quite up there with Pussy Galore – but still memorable in an oxy-moronic way). Clara is quite attractive, she appears fully nude once, and topless later on.
Jack is talked into taking one last job. As we heard in the trailers, he doesn’t even have to pull the trigger. Instead he is hired to build from scratch a specialized rifle for a client who turns out to be the now-she’s-blonde, now-she’s-not blonde Mathilde. Thekla Reuten has that role.
The film’s poster makes you think that this is going to be a taut action thriller. It is anything but. The shoot-outs are brief and are spaced out within the film. There are no explosions and only a short car chase. So if you want action you won’t find it here.
Instead you get to think and wait and then think some more and wait again for something to happen. Corbijn offers us a sex scene with Jack and Clara, as a change of pace, but it went on too long. Jack has that assassin’s paranoia about him. His personal sonar and radar and senses are always on. He sniffs out a hired gun out to kill him, before the guy even realizes he’s been made.
Once that happens, Jack knows his location has been compromised. Is it the priest, the hooker, the client? I thought that this was far less of a mystery than it was intended to be. Jack’s senses always told him when he needed to watch his back and take cover – but he was slow in figuring it out.
In Michael Mann’s Heat – Robert DeNiro’s character Neil McCauley said something about not getting attached to anything you’re not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat. Jack has lived his life the same way. It’s part of the job description. Until Clara.
In the 2nd Bourne film, The Bourne Supremacy, Jason spotted a guy out of place, because no one who was local would have been driving a black Beamer in a small Indian town near Goa. In this film, Jack’s radar helped him ID a Swedish assassin in a similar way. That guy just doesn’t seem right for this town.
So Corbijn and Rowan Joffe whose screenplay is adapted from the novel A Very Private Gentleman written by Martin Booth, have laid out a think piece but are selling it as an action-spy-thriller. The visuals are fine, but the pace is slow. It is also a quiet film – talk is at a minimum. Jack’s phone calls to his handler are terse – Jack might say 12 words and the calls last 20 seconds.
Clooney doesn’t do Danny Ocean this time. Instead think of Michael Clayton without a back story and with very little to say. What makes the film entertaining is not the overall story, nor the script, and certainly not the limited action – instead I loved every moment when Jack was with the priest, or the client, or the hooker. Those characters are the ones who make Jack a human. Without them, he’s too much of a methodical machine. Build the weapons, have a cup of Cafe Americano, workout. Sleep and dream.
Clooney was just doing Eastwood without the squints or the snarls or the gravelly voice. Clooney fans will like the film, and you might too – but see it for everything else except Clooney. If you go to the film intending to watch for and enjoy the supporting roles, you will enjoy the film. If you love George Clooney, then you must realize that this film, The American, is not one of George’s finest.