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The American (2010)

April 11, 2011

8/10 Waiting Games

A great take on a worn sub-genre…so long as you’re not expecting George Clooney as Jason Bourne.

The American is about an assassin who finds himself laying low in the Italian countryside after some angry Swedes unsuccessfully try to snuff him out. Since there’s not a whole lot to do in town aside from push ups and prostitutes, he takes a job to keep himself busy and decides it’s gonna be his last before getting out of the hired gun industry for good. But then the Swedes catch up with him again, he starts falling for his favorite call girl, and since it’s never easy telling the boss that your days as a trained killer are over (trust me, lots of paperwork and shit), this mysterious Yank has to fight his way out to if he plans on having any chance at a new life.

So I don’t know why I got caught up in all the ho-hum press this movie got last year, because right off the poster, I should have been there opening weekend. Not only does this baby happen to have the best poster of 2010, but I’m of the general mindset that George Clooney is a genuine old school badass, and it also happens to be the sophomore effort by director Anton Corbijn. If you didn’t see his first movie, Control (which was fantastic), then you might recognize him from all the awesome photographs he’s taken of rock stars and A-listers over the years. But if it’s still not ringing any bells, then just trust me on this one. He’s legit.

With that being said, I’m not really sure what it was about this movie that disappointed so many folks, but for starters, I’m guessing some cats out there found the pacing here to be a bit on the slow side in comparison to what was implied in the trailers. On the one hand, yeah, this isn’t much of an action movie. The shootouts that are here are may be straightforward and boss, but they’re also over and done with pretty quickly; it’s going more for realism than it is for “wow” factor, and the final job that Clooney takes is actually just him making a pimped out gun from scratch for two hours. And I get it, that would be disappointing if you paid 13 bucks to watch Danny Ocean go John Rambo. But on the other hand, go ahead and blame the trailer because that’s just not the movie this is.

It’s not as though Corbijn screwed the pooch or anything and simply didn’t know how to make an action movie, ’cause if anything, this is a character study and it’s a damn good one at that. I don’t know about everyone else, but it didn’t come off as slow to me, it felt like Corbijn was taking his time to create a mood, to get us invested in the man behind the trigger. From the first scene where Clooney barely avoids getting bumped off in a Swedish forest, it’s like an invisible noose has been placed around his neck and the rest of the movie is us watching him wait for the hangman to come kick the stool out from under. As a result, the plot becomes this slow boil of baited suspense that keeps him looking over his shoulder with every waking and sleeping minute until everything comes to head. In short, there wasn’t a single scene that I felt should have been taken out or cut short, I actually thought it was cool as hell watching him make that gun from start to finish, and it totally worked and totally kept me on edge.

And better yet, there’s hardly any dialogue here. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but it is so damn refreshing and rare to find a script that truly understands the power of silence, the many benefits that come with keeping things short and sweet, and knowing when to shut the fuck up. Too many movies today are just shameless examples of people talking for the sake of talking, and after realizing that most of it is stuff I’ve already heard before and heard it done better, I’m getting tired of listening. So I hope someone and their friend gave Rowan Joffe a high thirty for recognizing that when you don’t say much to begin with, people tend to listen when you speak up. Always amazes me how much you can say without saying anything at all.

But the double-edge sword of Joffe’s script is that there will always be an audience for this kind of stuff because hitmen will always be interesting, but there’s only so much on the subject that hasn’t already been said. Like I said, the unique thing about his approach is the way he places so much of an emphasis on Clooney waiting for the hammer to drop, and I don’t have a bad thing to say about that, but as far as the plot is concerned, it’s somewhat by-the-books. It’s a fine formula to go by, it’s just that you can probably guess the direction that things ultimately go in, and it’s the ending in particular that made the whole thing seem underwhelming and unfortunately predictable in light of the strengths that seemed so new. It’s a bummer and I really wish it had taken a different route, but then again, I’m crazy about the second-to-last shot of the movie and that alone kinda made up for what was actually going on in the scene itself.

And George Clooney is great as Jack because that guy’s got a face that speaks volumes. He looks like a professional, he acts like a professional, and the minor expressions he’s got at his disposal absolutely complement the sparse script he’s working with. It’s not a flashy movie, it’s not a flashy performance, and that’s why Clooney kick ass in it. Paolo Bonacelli is also swell as the town priest that takes a particular interest in Jack, and the super-naked Violante Placido aint’ too shabby either as Jack’s lady friend from the local whorehouse.

I consider myself lucky that I didn’t go into this expecting a John Woo thrill ride, because I can imagine how that would have taken away from an experience that I found really freakin’ impressive. Thanks to the scenery, Corbijn’s eye behind the camera, and the intentional patience of it all, this is a gorgeous movie to soak up and it’s got so much more to offer than so many thrillers that sacrifice substance for thrills. You gotta take it for what it is, and if that’s your mindset, The American might just be an 8 for you, too. A nice change of pace if anything else.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011 12:48 am

    I agree on all points. A lot of people hated on this film and I think it was because it wasn’t what they were expecting. As a suspense piece, the film is as engaging and entertaining as they come.

    Also, spot on about the value of silence. Ever since Pulp Fiction came out, everyone has been writing dense dialogue sequences like crazy and I always enjoy watching movies that rely on the ability of actors to engage the audience instead of the ability to have characters talk as much as possible.

    • May 2, 2011 3:10 pm

      I know, man. The more and more I watch movies these days, the more I just wish everyone would just shut the fuck up. God, can’t stand talking for the sake of talking. Loved that about this movie. That Pulp Fiction was a gift and curse, man.

  2. April 11, 2011 9:24 am

    So jonesin’ for this one on BluRay – I have heard plenty of good things about the film from people I respect, and your review is yet another notch on the belt of this film being a success after the fact.

    • May 2, 2011 3:10 pm

      Yeah, the trailer really screwed the pooch for this one. Bet this would look gorgeous on Blu-ray, too. Hope you dig it, man.

  3. April 11, 2011 3:02 pm

    I don’t mind a slow paced or slow brewing film. The problem I had was that I wasn’t invested in anyone. I thought the Priest character was fairly one dimensional. And though the film was beautiful to look at it, there wasn’t much else going on.

    • May 2, 2011 3:32 pm

      Yeah, I can see that. But idk, I liked the roles that everyone in his life played, even if they could have used some more fleshing out. And I thought it was pretty cool how much there was going on under the surface even if there wasn’t a whole lot happening plot-wise. Eh, whatever, can’t knock ya’ if it didn’t gel, not the most accessible movie out there by a long shot.

  4. April 11, 2011 9:46 pm

    Totally agree with all your points here. From the brutal and detached violence of the opening scene, this movie had me in a constant state of suspense despite barely anything happening for the remainder of the film. There is an ever-lingering threat of violence, from the sex scenes to all of the scenes where Jack meets tersely with other assassins.

    You’re right about Clooney’s face, too. He and everyone else in this movie is just so enjoyable and interesting to look at, and they all say so much without actually speaking.

    • May 2, 2011 3:33 pm

      Amen, brotha’. Sucker’s a finely tuned piece of work and Clooney was a solid casting choice. Just good stuff all around.

  5. trailboss permalink
    April 12, 2011 3:57 pm

    BORING as watching PAINT dry!

    What I LEARNED from the Movie :

    1) Don’t call the police for help.
    2) Clooney is not as young as he was 15-25 years ago.
    3) be careful in the water, you may stub your toe on a bullet
    4) when you touch dead bodies you don’t leave finger prints,and cops don’t check finger prints
    5) Fix your moped before someone shoots you.
    6) No, you got it wrong! it’s that you can’t hear a moped untill it’s 3 feet behind you!
    7) Italian rivers are cold.
    8) If you look and *beep* like George Clooney, a beautiful Italian prostitute with perfect teeth
    and gorgeous hair will ask you out to dinner and not charge you for her time.
    9) Assassins have no way to get guns except for from a 50 year old guy who makes them out of used car parts….
    10) It’s easy to make a new gun with no tools.
    12. OK, you get a hammer from the Car doctor. All it takes is 12 blows at noon to finish the gun.
    13. More complex tools (drill of some sort) can be easily obtained in a small italian village, no questions asked.
    14. Every italian speaks some english (except old ladies)
    15. If you leave tons of fingerprints on a moped of a dead guy, nobody will look into that, just priest will tell you not to be a bad boy again
    16. If someone on the telephone says, “Stay where you are!” Get the beep outta there as fast as you can.
    17. If a man is set up to flee with a beautiful woman he will be killed in the next scene.
    18) Avoid long romantic walks in the snow.
    19. Take off your shoes when you’re sneaking around on stone pavements.
    20. When you shoot a gun made from car parts and a hammer you can expect it to shoot in reverse and not out the barrel.
    21. Driving a car with a bullet in your gut to the middle of nowhere is not really a good idea.
    22. Italians in small mountainside villages look at strangers suspiciously, yet never say anything.
    23. You see a lone American enter a restaurant and sit down – leave immediately because trouble is on the way.
    24: Gluttony is not all that much of a deadly sin for Italian priests.
    25) Scooters can keep up with compact cars if they are fueled by Clooney’s charisma.
    26) Italian prostitutes have pretty good teeth.
    27) Small Italian towns have robust brothels.
    28) If you get shot and you’re losing blood, you won’t even notice it until right before you’re about to meet
    your girlfriend to run away forever. It’s more dramatic that way.
    29) The car doctor doesn’t charge you for parts.
    30) Italian priests don’t miss many meals.
    31) The yard behind the church is a great place to make out and sire bastards.
    32) If you’re running to help someone who’s wounded, take your giant cross with you. It has a lot of good medical applications.
    33) If you’re planning on assassinating someone, and they’re suspicious of you,
    and they’re capable of manufacturing exploding bullets, then you probably shouldn’t use the gun that they made to do the job.
    34) That another stupid OMG NUMBER OF THINGS I LEARNED FROM WATHING (Insert movie) is just not funny.
    This kind of crap wasn’t funny 7 years ago and it ain’t funny now.
    37. When you are an American and want to hide out do it in an Italian village even though you’ll stick out like a billboard that says
    “Here I am everybody, come and get me.”
    38) The most beautiful women in an Italian village are the hookers.
    39. You can go down on an Italian hooker and not come up with every kind of STD in the world on your lips.
    40. George Clooney likes tall, leggy brunettes.
    41. Even a hardened assassin will not shoot you in front of a busload of little boys.
    42. No building in Italy has been painted since about 1945.
    43. No one says Hello or Goodbye on the phone.
    44) Making a false bottom for your attache case will fool everybody in Italy where nobody has ever heard of Maxwell Smart.
    45) Contrary to what you would think, professional hit-men with any decent rifle can be pretty darn inept sometimes
    and not hit their target dressed in dark clothes walking in an open snow covered field less than 100 yards away
    46. While “hiding out” in a small village posing as a photographer, ask someone to help you lift a drillpress up to your apartment.
    47. After you’ve had a loud car/vespa chase through a sleepy Italian village firing bullets and ending up in a crash,
    then killing the driver, don’t leave. Hang around the village for a few days.
    No police will come by and question the mysterious foreign visitor.
    48. Only one guy in the town has a vehicle and that too makes gunshot noises.
    49. Go look for tools in a repair shop and make you look suspicious even though you can buy them off the shelf easily.
    50. If the enemy has spotted you then dont move or change your position. just stay there as you were a statue and wait for your death.
    51. With those kind of prostitutes, i wonder why anybody in Italy would get married.
    52. perfect way to disguise as a photographer is to not carry a camera around anytime.
    53. it costs you a car, phones, lot of money etc to buy a gun that you could have bought from black market.
    54. in small italian towns there are more houses than people. i mean waayyyy more houses. every person lives in 50 houses.
    55. Be afraid — be very, very afraid if George Clooney hands you a rifle and says, “I made this myself…”
    56. That if you’re a prostitute you’ll NEVER meet a “George Clooney” type who hands you a wad of lira and pleads, “Will you run away with me?”
    57. That there are actually movie theatres in mountainous little World War II towns in Italy.
    58. A strange American can show up in a small Italian town and covort openly with a prostitute
    while two prostitutes are found murdered and no one will ever suspect him.
    59. Always use a “long range” rifle to carry out an assassination in plain sight of an entire village.
    60. If you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk. Otherwise, a soccer team will conveniently show up to get between you and your target.
    61. If you leave the assassination business, you will be assassinated. No exceptions.
    So make sure you tell your boss what you plan to do after the hit is over.

    • April 27, 2011 2:21 am

      I dug The American, but holy shit, that was epic. Round of applause, trailboss.

      I still have a few lingering issues with The American (not 61 of them, mind you), but it’s a movie that I appreciate for what it was and how it did it more than anything else. I’ll take a “boring” movie like this over 45 Salts or Knight and Days or anything like that.


      • May 2, 2011 3:36 pm

        Placido. Word.

        And I totally agree with you, at least this was different. Such a great change of pace from all the rehashed bullshit we’re used to getting from action movies.

    • May 2, 2011 3:35 pm

      Sweet sassy molassy, dude. I hope you copy and pasted that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen nitpicking on such an epic scale. Bravo, I suppose.

  6. April 13, 2011 1:27 pm

    It’s interesting how divisive this movie is. My friends went to see this whilst a few of us saw Expendables and whilst I was complaining how loud and dumb Expendables was, they complained how quiet and boring this was, ahah.

    “…rare to find a script that truly understands the power of silence” So true! I don’t mind scenes that ‘speak’ without a single word uttered, but my concern about this one is how people say they can’t quite connect with the characters, now that’s a problem. It’s on my Netflix queue though, curious which side I’ll be on. Anyway, great review man.

    • May 2, 2011 3:44 pm

      Haha, thanks. Man, now I need to see The Expendables already. Think I’ve been deterred by the flood of reactions like the one you had. But what can I say, I will always be a sucker for Stallone.


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