The first thing some people (though not all) coming out of The American may say is "It's... slow." They may be missing the idea behind the film. It's not about making an action-packed thriller (one critic putting the cheesy pun "Less Jason Bourne and more Jason Boring" is foolish to make that comparison), and if you need that this particular weekend of Labor Day then Robert Rodriguez's Machete should suffice with that. This is a film with a European sensibility- it even has the director Anton Corbijn from the Netherlands- and is more about the internal conflict and his mechanical, cold nature than anything to do with a straightforward plot. The American is never confusing, and only for those who are looking for something with a huge shot of adrenaline (which, to be fair, the trailer doesn't do a good job of setting up) will feel let down or bored. It's a work that asks to adjust your expectations for a dramatic thriller. To give a much more apt comparison, it's like Jean-Pierre Melville taking a crack at Jarmusch's the Limits of Control. Yeah, that's more like it.
Another thing that makes Corbijn's work so appealing is his star, who is really George Clooney the "actor" this time. It's startling to consider, though sometimes easy to forget, how much range Clooney actually has. In some roles he does go by on his movie-star charm (Ocean's movies) or sometimes plays with that image (Up in the Air) or is just plain goofy (work with the Coen brothers). A performance like this is more in line with Michael Clayton, and it is one of his most memorable. He comes in doing a kind of Alain Delon impersonation (again, Melville comes to mind with his often leading figure), and his Jack character is a smooth operator, a killer who is only cold-blooded due to years of detachment and people around him that he becomes 'friends' with getting killed. The basic set-up is that he's in Italy lying low after a snafu in Sweden, and is given a job to put together a gun for an assassin. Along the way he meets a prostitute and the two become close. Maybe too close.
There is predictability in the narrative, but that's not what Corbijn and Clooney are going for. Anyone can take the old 'one last job' or 'don't fall in love or get close' kind of thing. In fact just two years ago, on this precise weekend, one saw a lackluster action-packed equivalent, Bangkok Dangerous, come out with just a similar thing. Corbjin, taking from a screenplay based on the book by Martin Booth (formerly called A Very Private Gentleman aptly enough), makes this about a man who has had his life chipped away bit by bit from this line of work. He doesn't always kill, but he can, or he is professionally able to get other people to kill. One of the key things to look for is how Clooney acts, calmly and assuredly, and how simply Corbjin films him, as Jack puts together the gun and assembles the pieces. It's like a well-oiled, impersonal machine. The question becomes: how human can this man be, can he connect with someone else?
These are questions that don't usually fly in Hollywood fare, certainly not even in other big Clooney-vehicle spectacles like the Oceans movies. The amount of restraint is remarkable, but how Corbjin keeps things eerily peaceful and leisurely paces is what's really incredible. Some have also compared it to 70's crime thrillers, and that's not unfounded. The action that does come out- and there are, to be fair, a few decent sequences of chasing, dodging and bullets flying without a change of film speed- comes out of the suspense, and the suspense comes out of paranoia. Clooney always has to look over his shoulder, and has to second guess everything he does. His conniving boss thinks that he's growing soft, but Jack knows better, or should. Even around his usually very naked and beautiful prostitute girlfriend, played by Violante Placido, he has to have a gun at the ready when he sees he has one. Can he trust her? Can we?
Again, I have to stress how this is the George Clooney show along with the director's. If you find him to be an underrated actor, this is a feast of interesting, understated moments. Whether or not he's handsome or dreamy or whatever he is to women (and/or men) should be irrelevant to how he acts in the movie. But the movie star quality also carries over to a point. When he wants to be, Clooney can be so compelling with barely an eye moment, just a gesture, or a little inflection to his persona. You need a presence like him, among various character actors both pretty (i.e. Mathilde) and more sinister looking (Swedish villains) or more friendly but portly (the village priest), and he does. I would see the film again just for Clooney and how he drew me in with the believability of the resolve and sorrow in his character.
Another hard sell this season - an art film in the guise of Hollywood Euro-thriller fare in strikingly gorgeous locales shot by that guy who did music videos for Depeche Mode - but it holds a lot of rewards for the patient and willing.