Andy Bockelman: ‘American’ is smart but slow tale of international intrigue
September 14, 2010
2.5 out of 4 stars
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten and Paolo Bonacelli.
If there's one thing Hollywood knows how to make, it's a slam-bang action movie. But, do the makers of European art house cinema share the same style? That's the biggest question of all in "The American."
The life of a gun for hire is a dangerous one, something that professional assassin Jack (George Clooney) knows now more than ever. After a disastrous incident in Sweden, he's ready to get out of his line of work, which means not looking over his shoulder everywhere he goes.
However, even while he's hiding out in an Italian village under the guise of an American photographer, the right people still know how to find him, and his boss (Johan Leyson) isn't happy about losing his best man. However, if Jack's willing to complete one more job, then retirement is an option.
As Jack prepares himself for this final task, he seeks comfort in the arms of a local prostitute (Violante Placido) and begins to let his guard down. But, no matter how much he unwinds, there's always the lingering threat of his past catching up with him and the open-ended matter of his life once he's no longer useful.
Clooney does well playing against type as a killer whose personality isn't particularly endearing and whose will to stay alive is often downright scary. A scene in a café with Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" on the television makes for a captivating moment as Jack locks eyes with an unblinking Henry Fonda, providing an unusual juxtaposition as two iconic American actors share the screen as killers in Italian-made movies filmed more than 40 years apart.
Placido is lovely as Clara, the lady of the evening he takes up with, who quickly falls under the spell of this silent expatriate, though always sensing that his lack of communication is indicative of something sinister. Thekla Reuten is just as capable as Mathilde, Jack's new colleague, who requires his artistry in modifying weapons for her part of the assignment that is his swan song in the world of contract killing, but he's not stupid enough to believe that he can quit that easily.
Paranoia runs rampant as Jack constantly feels the need to whip around with his gun drawn as he walks the quiet, cobblestone streets in the late hours. But, even when he takes his partner in amore to a sunny meadow, he feels just as unsafe and this apprehension comes through loud and clear.
In fact, there's so much tension throughout the story that it results in a severe anticlimax once we finally get to the payoff. The action of this action movie is doled out in small portions to be digested between long bouts of Jack's inactivity as he works out, perfects and camouflages his new weapon and hits the sheets with Clara.
There's some good gunplay, to be sure, but while the day-to-day details of this hit man's life are worth a look, it's a difficult watch if you're expecting anything to actually happen. The best word to describe it would be "interesting": that vague variation of the term that one only uses in regards to a film when there's nothing better to say about it.
Think of "The American" as a drastically toned-down version of "In Bruges," minus the irreverence and the out-of-the-way tourist sights. The tone of the movie is best observed in amateur lepidopterist Jack's nickname, Signore Farfalle —Mister Butterfly — as it tends to float along showing off its colors without having any real impact.