The American (2010) dir. Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli
The trailer promoting this film depicts George Clooney as an assassin, brandishing a large silenced rifle in a number of fast pace action sequences in exotic locales. Though it’s being marketed this way, James Bond this is not, Jason Bourne this is not, Salt this is not. The disconnect between this Bond/Bourne retread spy schlock and the fact that this was Anton Corbijn’s second feature film after 2008’s great B&W rock picture Control, didn’t make sense. After watching the picture it’s all clear.
The fact is The American couldn't be a more audience-unfriendly genre film. But for viewers looking for a more thoughtful introspective thriller, The American will be a breath of fresh air. The film features no other recognizable actors except for Clooney, though director Corbijn assembles an impressive group of actors with immensely interesting faces, particularly the Italian beauty Violante Placido, who is impossibly gorgeous and nude half the time.
Though treading in the same genre as Bond, the film plays like the austere Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped, Pickpocket) version of the spy thriller – a minimalist quiet burner stripped bare of excessive accoutrements of plot, characters, action, and melodrama. The result is no less thrilling or suspenseful than Bond/Bourne, an art spy film really, which has being dressed up by the marketing folks to appeal to the masses and what some might call false advertising.
George Clooney plays Jack, a career criminal, a professional assassin who is ready to move on in life, settle down, raise a family perhaps. His life as a hitman continues to haunt him though when his new domestic life is interrupted after an attempt on his life. Jack reconnects with his agent in Rome and goes back to business for one more hit to make things right and free himself of this burdon of violence.
Posing as a photographer Jack holes himself up in a quiet Italian mountainside hamlet awaiting his orders. It’s a tourist’s dream locale, full of mom and pop flavour, lots of Cafe Americanos, cobblestone roads, Vespas, a kindly priest for Jack confess his sins to, even a super hot prostitute who pleasures Jack like no other. But he also has work to do and goes about the procedural tasks of his last job, manufacturing a high powered rifle for a steely-eyed female assassin to use on another hit.
Clooney’s treatment of the professional killer, treads on the Jean-Pierre Melville world of crime, borrowing from Melville's rich filmography of stone cold cops and robbers films in the 60’s, specifically ‘Le Samurai’ which would become John Woo’s main influence on ‘The Killer’. Like Alain Delon, Jack who speaks only when necessary and only those words necessary to convey his information he needs to do his work. Of course, he lives in a bare apartment, free of any distractions, has eyes of an eagle and can sense and react to danger like an antelope in a forest.
This machine-like sub-human existence shows its wear when he’s with Clara the prostitute – another familiar relationship in this genre not unlike the Robert De Niro/Amy Brenneman dynamic in Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’. But Jack’s seduction we know must come with danger – is Clara is hiding something? Is she perhaps working for his enemies? Or will Clara’s innocent presence come in between Jack and his work? Either way, love and crime, are like oil and water, and we kind of know where this is going.
But great cinema is not about whether we know what’s coming next, but how we get there. Anton Corbijn, a former photographer, creates pristine, perfectly composed frames, complimenting Jack’s rigorous adherence to control (pun not intended). There’s also a quiet intensity to his tone. The film is so quiet, so controlled, and knowing what’s at stake means there’s a constant feeling of suspense. In the final act, there’s series of Hitchcock-worthy set pieces of stunning nail biting tension, which is wrung out with the expertise of a great filmmaker.
The American does not break new ground in the genre, but admirably builds on the work of other great crime masters, updated for a mainstream audience, however difficult a task that will be. This is a fantastic picture, don't let the trailer fool you.