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The American

It's definitely not based on the Henry James novel of the same name, much as Anton  Corbijn's second feature does offer a creaky dialog between old and new world representatives, American assassin Jack, a.k.a., Edward Clark (George Clooney) and the priest (Paolo Bonacelli) of the small Italian village where the killer is hiding out.   

Despite the fact that there are a few picturesque locations announced by on-screen titles, The American is in some ways a James Bond film without the geographic and plot line ADHD.   Most of the action, or deliberate lack thereof, takes place in one of those medieval Italian villages.  What it really does is convincingly show the psychological repercussions of a life devoted to killing,  something which the Bond franchise has at least touched upon since the arrival of Daniel Craig.   But as a compensation, both Jack and James operate in a world in which most all of the women are ridiculously gorgeous.    

Actually, given the Italian setting - our man George owns a place on Lake Como - and abundance of beautiful women, maybe this is just Clooney's life, without  the palpable sense of paranoia and the frequent loss of life. 

Thekla Reuten (above) and Violante Placido
The American is clearly a vehicle for Clooney, much as was the case with the superior Michael Clayton. However, the even more somber and unsympathetic character that he plays here is probably not a side of Mr. Clooney for which audiences are clamoring. But it's a character and a mood that he inhabits convincingly. There has always been a sadness behind the ready smile, a mournfulness in the dark eyes.

The plot, scant though it is, has Clooney's mercenary first in Sweden.   When that job ends badly, he's summoned to Italy to meet with his contact, or perhaps his superior, Pavel (Johan Leysen), who sends him to a quiet village in the Italian countryside, Castelvecchio.  As an indication of  growing disenchantment with his vocation, or maybe a reflection of his sharp killer's instincts, he takes one look at that lonely, little Abruzzo village and decides to try the next perched village over, pitching Pavel's cell phone out the window of his modest Fiat along the way.   He takes rooms, begins to skulk around the hilly, cobbled lanes and is fairly quickly spotted and engaged by the local priest.   Typical of the verbal icebergs they send back and forth, Jack ends one exchange by saying, "I don't think God is interested in me, father."   

Meanwhile, the affronted Swedes have dispatched a killer of their own, who stalks Jack as he goes about his routine, watching him from a car while he sips cappuccino in a lonely cafe (while Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West plays on a tv.) and generally shadowing him for days.   All of this perhaps an indication of why the Swedes have yet to distinguish themselves in the killer for hire field.   The deliberate, ginger-haired and ultimately inept hitman is finally killed by Jack.  But I'm sure he left behind a very organized home back in Scandinavia.  

Jack's next assisgnment, which is relayed to him via pay phone (how quaint) back in Castelvecchio, involves no killing, but the building of a specialized rifle for a mysterious and, of course, beautiful client Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who clearly knows her way around a firearm.   At one point, she has Jack fire rifle shots just past her head.   She doesn't flinch, but points out with pleasure that she couldn't tell from where the shots originated.  

Director Corbijn is no stranger to stories that tend toward the somber; he's long been a fan of the band Joy Division, after all.   His first film was Control (2007), an assured biopic about Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis.  Sadly, the source material isn't quite so original here.

I haven't read A Very Private Gentleman, the novel by Martin Booth on which The American is based, but it's fortuitous that Rowan Joffe's script is on the minimal side. There's the problematic and portentous throwing together of the assassin and priest, well played though it may be. And there's the recurring motif of the butterfly. Jack has a tattoo of one on his back; we see him with a book about them on his chest when he wakes with a start (this the rude manner in which consciousness is usually thrust upon him, like a bucket of cold water); he and the catalog-perfect Mathilde discuss  - their converstation as they pretend to picnic, something of a post-coital chat after the sex of all that gun firing - an almost colorless variety, with Jack noting its endangered status. It's the sort of thing which is supposed to add depth to the characterization, but not when it is handled so clumsily and arbitrarily. The film's final image of that same rare butterfly fluttering skyward is almost laughable, and one for which the screenwriter and director have to answer.

And then there is the matter of Clara, played by Violante Placido.  The two become acquainted when Jack decides to break with his monastic routine and patronize a local brothel.   After a second (paid) encounter between the two sees Jack cross boundaries not usually approached by the client in such a situation, a bond is established, wary as Jack is of any involvement.   His previous lovely companion in Sweden (Irina Bjorklund) had paid the price of getting too close to the killer.  

 As for the striking Clara, once Jack's paranoia is mollifed,  we discover that she might just have a heart made of...well, you know.  Hers might be the world's oldest profession, but the hooker with a heart of gold is right on its heels as the world's oldest cliche.  Perhaps somene should have put out a contract on the script writer.     

 Howeverwe do get a beautifully photographed part of Italy that we don't often see on screen, the mountainous landscape and labyrinthine villages of Abruzzo enhancing the assassin's sense of loneliness and paranoia.  I was reminded of John Frankenheimer's Ronin (1998), another film with an American star (Robert DeNiro), made not just in Europe, but with sensibilities, sadly, more associated these days with films from that part of the world than those of our country.

We have a movie star willing to cash in some of the goodwill he's built with audiences in favor of something darker than ususally makes it into wide release.  It's a shame he couldn't find a better story on which to spend it.  Allusions have been made in other reviews to Jean Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, but any such reference should take the form of contrast, not comparison.   It's not really Clooney's fault, but if you want to see a film like The American done right, check out Melville's 1967 classic.



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