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With: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Irina Björklund, Johan Leysen, Filippo Timi, Anna Foglietta
Written by: Rowan Joffe, based on a novel by Martin Booth
Directed by: Anton Corbijn
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content and nudity
Language: English, Italian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 103
Date: 09/01/2010

The American (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Under the Gun

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Imagine a spy movie, or a hitman movie, with hardly any dialogue, and no shaky-cam. Imagine, also, that it's shot in Europe, and that it moves slowly enough that you can get a real sense of the surroundings and atmosphere. Such a movie would most likely have been made in France in the 1960s, right? Something like Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967)? Nope. Here's an actual Hollywood movie -- with a big time Hollywood movie star -- that does all those things. (Admittedly, it does have a Dutch director in Anton Corbijn.)

I like The American for those reasons alone, but I wish it could have been more. It attempts to paint George Clooney's "Jack," as a stoic cipher, much like Alain Delon in Le Samourai. Unfortunately, he's also supposed to be a romantic lead, falling in love with a "hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold" character named Clara (Violante Placido). Clara looks at him longingly and lovingly, and he responds with a cold glare, and we're supposed to buy this as a genuine connection. He is George Clooney, after all, and so we can assume that she'd be drawn to him, but this character needs something more.

Likewise, there's the plot. Jack makes a living building specialized guns for hitmen and assassins; he travels, lays low, stays out of sight, doesn't speak to anyone (not terribly unlike his character in Up in the Air). This movie, of course, doesn't focus on just any job, though. This is his last job, the last big one before he retires. And, of course, he has been set up and there are killers after him. Why can't moviemakers realize that this guy's life is pretty interesting all by itself, without throwing in all those stale thriller turns? I won't even mention the ending, which any reasonable moviegoer will be able to peg at least a reel in advance. Nor will I go very deeply into the movie's "butterfly" metaphor, which is frankly pretty silly.

However, I enjoyed, and am recommending The American as a victory of style over substance. Clooney -- who also co-produced -- gets a lot of credit for being able to get something un-commercial like this greenlit; recall, also, the stillness of Solaris (2002) or the black-and-white of Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). And Corbijn is one of the few directors that really knows how to luxuriate in a widescreen frame; see also his 2007 film Control, a black-and-white biopic about the band Joy Division. Corbijn uses cobblestone streets, buildings, courtyards, streams, cars, and other spaces and objects as characters, as interesting and immovable as Clooney himself. When a lady assassin decides to set up a target in the middle of a field, Corbijn takes the time to watch her walk out, set up the target, and walk all the way back to where Jack waits with the gun.

This type of patience and careful watching usually doesn't fly in American movies, and I suspect that this movie will disappear quietly, especially given the poster image that suggests plenty of action and is setting up audiences for disappointment. But despite all these troubles, The American is a real rarity and I'm happy it's around.

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