The American strikes me as one of those love-it-or-hate-it type of movies, based on its unhurried pace and European-style minimalism. Frankly, I'm amazed that it didn't tank at the North American box office, where it pulled in $35 million. That figure may be considered poor by star George Clooney's standards, but everything's relative. Really, it's a testament to his star power that an uncommercial, borderline art film with mixed reviews and absolutely zero in the way of another recognizable name in the rest of the cast (unrecognizable on this continent, anyway) performed at the level it did.
An adaptation of Martin Booth's 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American is beautifully directed by Anton Corbijn, who made his name as a photographer and video director for some of the biggest names in music (including U2, Metallica, Johnny Cash, and The Rolling Stones), as well as the Hollywood and fashion world elite. His first foray into feature films was 2007's Control, a highly praised biopic on Joy Division. I love rock films, but had next to no interest in Control, due to my complete lack of interest in the band, not to mention I've always found Corbijn's work highly overrated (as I touched on in my review from last year of the documentary Shadow Play: The Making Of Anton Corbijn). Based on the director's superb work here, however, I believe I may have to revisit my decision to skip his directorial debut.
An inspection of Clooney's movie resume actually reveals a surprisingly weak track record. Of the 25 or so films in which he's been the main star since his breakout role on TV's ER in 1994, only about four are, in my opinion, strong pieces of work (including Out Of Sight, Three Kings, Michael Clayton, and Up In The Air). The rest are average (such as the first Ocean's Eleven, The Perfect Storm, and From Dusk Till Dawn), noble failures (like Syriana, The Good German, and Burn After Reading), or just outright garbage (Good Night And Good Luck, Batman & Robin, Solaris, and Leatherheads, to name just a few). O Brother, Where Art Thou? might seem conspicuously absent from that rundown...label that one exceedingly overvalued from my viewpoint.
Now you can add one more notch to Clooney's emaciated "strong" cinematic column with his performance here. His character, known first as Jack (he subsequently also uses "Edward" as a pseudonym), is a skilled assassin with additional expertise in the field of custom-designed firearms building. Worn out by the gruelling mental toll his occupation has inflicted on him, he decides to take one last job before getting out. His contact hooks Jack/Edward up with the beautiful Mathilde (played by Thekla Reuten), a hitwoman who needs a custom-designed sniper rifle for her next assignment. While set up in a small town in the Italian countryside, Jack/Edward, a man who feels his past transgressions place him beyond the loving grasp of God or any other higher being, finds himself surprisingly befriending Father Benedetto (played by Paolo Bonacelli), who has a few skeletons in the closet of his own. Jack/Edward also finds himself falling for a local prostitute named Clara (played by Violante Placido). The nudity and other eye candy scenes, such as the one featuring a lingering rear silhouette shot of Reuten in a tight skirt, or even a couple with a shirtless Clooney working out, feel a little gratuitous, yes. But what the hell...I mean, Placido is categorically jaw-droppingly beautiful and, despite the title, it is basically a European film.
Clooney does a superb job of conveying the oppressive weight his character carries around, underplaying the role with deft touches of paranoia and moroseness and setting the emotionally subdued tone that flows throughout the film (aided nicely by an effective score from Herbert Grönemeyer). The script, adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe, employs a refreshing economy of dialogue that puts more demands on the actors (especially Clooney, who is in virtually every scene), a task which the entire cast is up to.
A sort of lo-fi Bourne movie, The American goes heavy on mood and sparse on the action, which will turn off many viewers. Those looking for something a little more thoughtful and higher-minded will be rewarded, however.