Directed by Anton Corbijn
Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Rueten, Paolo Bonacelli, Irina Bjorklund, Johan Leysen
Screenplay by Rowan Joffe
Hit man movies have only so far to go. You are usually making the hit, and then becoming the target. There are other options, where one becomes entangled along the way, compromising the “mission” and the lives of everyone on-screen. That The American starts off beyond this point is of little consequence, then. Everything is cyclical, so you know he’ll be back again.
The hit man in question is known as, at various times, Jack, Edward and Mr. Butterfly (Clooney). Forced at the start of the film into making a choice that, on its face, has to be emotionally crippling, soldiers on, and picks up his next assignment. He display’s a wariness at this point that makes the rest of the film somewhat of a labor: if you don’t trust the people you are working for, why pick up another job?
Jack makes a compromise, changing some of the limits of his instructions, going his own way, so to speak, and then begins his work. His every move to this point has been measured, his eyes constantly darting across the landscape, assessing every room that he enters. His tension is palpable.
There is a sequence after Jack takes the request of his client where he begins the work of constructing a gun. This is the point where the tension lifts, and you can see more than a locked jaw on his countenance. The act is a ritual for him. It is his saving
grace, and, ironically the means to end someone else’s life. Nothing breaks his concentration at this point, and, interestingly, the viewer feels they can take their first full breath while watching him here.
At nights, he takes in the services of a specific prostitute, Clara (Placido). He likes her, and begins to see her on a regular basis. She knows him as Edward. As does the local Priest, Father Benedetto (Bonacelli), who takes an interest in him, and subtly tries to waken him to the possibility of salvation. Through the Priest, Edward / Jack, arranges a meeting with a local mechanic of questionable repute.
From the mechanic, he procures parts to finish making his weapon. The Priest asks him about the parts he got from his mechanic friend, and Edward / Jack, who poses as a photographer, but does a poor job disguising the fact that he is anything but, presents the Priest with the understanding that he and the mechanic share the same eyes. This does not lessen the priest’s conviction, and you can feel Edward start to sway as he begins to understand.
Things between Edward and Clara begin to deepen, but for Jack / Edward, who can still feel the sting from his last engagement, needs to know that she is not compromised. After a run in with another assassin, he finds a gun in her purse, and then takes her on a picnic. Ultimately, he begins to think her intentions pure and her heart worth having. Now, for that last job.
Things go from here about as one would expect. If you expect nothing, I will not ruin it for you.
Clooney’s performance here is filled with regret and nuance. On the one hand, he is ultimately guarded, and on the other, he is an open book, depending on who is reading. There is no fun to be had in this movie. I guess that could be expected in the life of a secret agent, but the fight scenes (including a chase scene involving a scooter and a compact car) are not in league with Bourne.
There are some good scenes in the labyrinthine old Italian cities. One could almost imagine a gun with a silencer attached in every curve and wind of each street. These scenes are shot well, and give a real sense of dread. Problem is, by the end of the movie, it’s been done so many times, it loses it’s effect.
The whole movie plays like a piano chord stretched to the limit and struck, repeatedly and in a muffled tone. There is only so much one can take before the tension becomes exhaustive. You know there can be no satisfaction. The parts are all well-played, but the direction is that same note, over and over. Ultimately, this is the film’s undoing.
Some people may enjoy the tension, pace and sound of this film. I just needed to take a nap after it.
(*** out of *****)