Anton Corbijn's The American, based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth (which I have not read), and starring George Clooney as a world-weary hitman looking for something else, is a moving and accomplished semi-allegorical action suspense thriller. It does bring to mind great assassin and other action movies of the past (directly referencing Sergio Leone in more than one way) without feeling like a rehash, and it sticks with its characters and story to the end.
We meet Clooney's assassin, alternately known as Jack or Edward, on holiday in heaven at the top of the world in Sweden with a lovely companion (Irina Björklund, lovely). A walk in the snow alters some of their self-satisfied plans, and Jack heads further into the wilds of the EU to Italy to consult with his mysterious boss, an utter staple of mysterious-assassin films, Pavel (Johan Leysen, strong), who of course has luxurious hideouts and lucrative hitjobs on speed dial twenty-four hours a day.
Lackluster set-up? Not really, it's pretty effective for whatever genre limitations apply. We're quickly and believably--in context--ushered into Jack and Pavel's world and invited to look around, and it's all illustrated convincingly as the story progresses, sustaining the chief metaphors fairly ably. Out of context--oh, but why bother with that?
Some of the semi-allegory does suffer from repetition and a meditative pace which sometimes causes symbols to get a tad more meditation than strictly necessary, at times flirting with ponderousness. Still, like a couple of other notable time-warp films--films in which you notice the experience of viewing it seems timeless or interminable at the same time you realize you don't mind a bit--which I have enjoyed, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Mel Gibson's Braveheart, or like the more recent The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, everything's there for a memorable, enjoyable time and a feeling afterward that what you've seen is profound and meaningful, or close.
The American comes close. It also compares favorably with similarly ambitious films of this year with similar themes, Shutter Island and Inception, without all the complicated fooferaw of a ponderous framing story, mindbending special effects or a big-reveal ending. Sometimes when you put a character in purgatory, you can just put him right, just right slap there in purgatory without need for sci-fi, drugs, psychotherapy or what-have-you.
You can just play it straight. Clooney does, and his performance is the film. We see most of the action through his character's eyes, or framed directly on his character, with a few exceptions of additional angles. He plays Jack's tension, uncertainty, suspense, exertion, mental discipline, world-weariness, and extremity rather brilliantly, and not just on his face, but with his every movement. He's as physically expressive here as in his most outlandish comic-farce performances, in a totally different, obviously and necessarily more subdued, but wholly dedicated way.
The strong supporting cast includes Björklund and Leysen, previously mentioned. Leysen, with what could have been a boring or predictable character, is terse, economically used and indeed seems almost the pluperfect assassin-runner. Paolo Bonacelli is colorful and wise as the perceptive priest Father Benedetto. Thekla Reuten is gorgeous, smart and utterly put-together as one of Jack's professional colleagues. And Violante Placido as Clara takes another worn movie stereotype and breathes some specific life into it.
Herbert Grönemeyer composed the score, and it deserves special mention. It's varied and versatile, sometimes just tickling the moviegoer lightly under the chin, sometimes charging ahead, sometimes jazzy, sometimes synthetic, usually adding to the suspense or other mood of the scene. There's Ennio Morricone in there, for sure, and more.
Anybody might like The American. George Clooney fans will particularly be glad to spend this time with him on the big screen. Action fans with short attention spans need not apply, but others should be satisfied with the tension, conflicts and resolution. Anton Corbijn has crafted a striking and elemental film with a great lead performance from Clooney. It's not perfect; it's very worthy.
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Roger Ebert Review
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