The tough-cool tradition of classic French crime dramas lives in Anton Corbijn’s thriller, “The American,” until oddities and an unbelievable love story render it soft and nearly forgettable. Tautly adapted by screenwriter Rowan Joffe from late novelist Martin Booth’s “A Very Private Gentleman,” the film is ultimately most memorable as a vehicle for George Clooney at his steeliest, playing an assassin realizing he’s being targeted by his hires. This may be a Clooney movie, but it’s a very European one, and that may ultimately limit box office.
Images of a snowy Swedish landscape set Corbijn’s second feature (following his Cannes Directors Fortnight hit, “Control”) on a suitably chilly tone reflected in the character of Jack (Clooney). Chiseled and with an animal-like attentiveness, Clooney’s killer-for-hire is immediately seen as the target while innocently walking through the snow with a lover, who’s promptly dispatched by an unseen marksman.
Whoever’s out to get him (he refers to the shady enemy as “the Swedes”), his handler/boss Pavel (Johan Leysen) won’t exactly say, and the next time Jack surfaces, he’s in Rome being told to head for the village of Castelvecchio in the Pesaro region to lay low. Jack’s quickly in deepest Italy, and here the efficiency with which Corbijn handles the early action and sequencing improves on his biographical storytelling of Joy Division leader Ian Curtis in “Control.”
Though the issue of Jack trusting no one ultimately trips up Joffe’s scenario to a vexing degree, the character’s understandable suspicion plays out in his deciding to change villages, never staying in one place too long or allowing himself to connect with other characters. As a lone wolf, Clooney’s near-wordless style of attack uncannily recalls Alain Delon’s assassin in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai,” and it probably would have been advisable for the film to stick as close as possible to this template.
Instead, two phony-feeling characters manage to find their way into Jack’s reclusive existence: Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a kindly priest who takes an unfounded interest in Jack’s sinful life, and Clara (Violante Placido), a hooker whose purpose is to pull Jack into the world of humanity and emotions.
It’s telling that so long as Jack and Clara have a merely carnal customer-client relationship in bed, the pairing is vivid, erotic and true. One post-coital shot of the couple in bed as they trade small-talk and a cigarette (with Clooney conversing in Italian) feels as pure as Corbijn’s detailed staging of Jack custom-building a rifle for fellow assassin Mathilde (Thekla Reuten).
“The American” thrills to the sound and rhythm of cool professionalism, such as the technical exchanges between Jack and Mathilde on the details of her weapon, and when it veers from this attitude to render Jack closer to a real person, it fails to convince, mainly because it feels like a violation of Jack’s essence. Thus, a terrific third-act twist that turns Mathilde’s fate on its head and appears to send the film toward a powerful payoff never occurs, since Jack is himself fated for a far less interesting end.
Clooney may not have a hit this time, but he continues to apply considerable intelligence to his work as an actor, still trying to deliver something fresh and interesting for his fans. This is undeniably his movie, though Leysen as the distanced boss projects a mysterious malice.
Corbijn’s career as a photographer informs regular d.p. Martin Ruhe’s widescreen images, which include the exquisite (especially during nighttime chase scenes) and the repetitiously picturesque (ultralong shots of Jack’s car on the hilly Italian roads, which closely resemble car commercials). Herbert Gronemeyer’s piano-and-percussion score is effective by not being overused.