The American (2010)
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.