George Clooney isn't bulletproof
By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
In "The American," George Clooney brings his most somber game face to the role of a hit man named Jack, who finds himself ambushed on an isolated, ice-covered Swedish lake. The odd gunshot notwithstanding, the scene transpires in almost complete silence. It turns out that both the setting and the soundtrack anticipate the chilly study in solitude that unfolds. Directed by Anton Corbijn from a book by Martin Booth, "The American" is an action thriller that refuses to deliver action or thrills, instead engaging in a brand of arty formalism rarely seen outside cinema studies classrooms.
On that basis alone, "The American" presents a fascinating experiment in whether movie audiences gorged on a steady diet of Apatow and "Avatar" can slow their metabolisms down enough for Antonioni. It's the work of that 1970s Italian auteur that this film's meditative pacing, wide-open landscapes and enigmatic protagonist most readily evoke.
Still, while cinema-lovers can cheer a director willing to buck the fashion for sensory overload, "The American" can't rightly be called a success. Booth's story, adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe, ultimately sags under a fatally ponderous tone. As for Clooney, he has been stripped of the self-deprecating character tics that made even his dramatic roles in "Michael Clayton" and "Up in the Air" such joys to behold; here he plays someone so closed-off he's virtually inert.
Once Jack dispatches his foes in Scandinavia, he departs for Italy, where his boss (Johan Leysen) suggests he lie low for a while in one of Abruzzo's medieval hill towns. Fans hoping to find Clooney partaking of Italy's sensuous pleasures on the way to inner peace ("Eat Pray Shoot"?) will be disappointed to find their heartthrob leading a monastic existence of exercise, vigilance and visits to local cafes in scenes that could easily end in either an assassination or a Nespresso commercial.
When Jack starts to work for a gorgeous client named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), he also strikes up a carnal friendship with Clara (Violante Placido), a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character.
That "The American" traffics in such well-worn types could be forgiven if the filmmakers gave them even the gentlest of twists. But Corbijn, a former music video director who made a promising debut in 2007 with "Control," an equally elegant biopic about 1970s British band Joy Division, plays it straight, treating Jack's every move and glance with fetishistic reverence. After such a succession of bloodless tableaux, "The American" finally asks the audience to care -- much too late.
Do the movies really need yet another hit man embarking on one last job before retiring? Another thug portrayed as a disciplined craftsman with the soul of an artist (in this case, his love of butterflies)? At one point in "The American," the filmmakers pay homage to Sergio Leone: "Once Upon a Time in the West" plays on a TV in a bar. The reference is logical but unearned. What Leone understood, and Corbijn is still learning, is how to deploy the hoariest archetypes in ways that make even pulp entertainment artful and art entertaining.
Contains violence, sexual content and nudity.