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Published: Tuesday, 8/31/2010

‘The American': red, white, and boring


The American may be a theater owner’s best friend. The film’s dull, languid pace probably will drive movie-goers to the concession stand. Even worse? These same bored audience members will find they haven’t missed much when they return to their seats, in this pointless character study of an assassin, Jack (George Clooney), who’s as interesting as a math quiz.

At least Jack is good at what he does — killing and making weapons for others to kill people. But the constant pressures to stay alive have left Jack hollow, lonely, and jumpy. He cannot leave a room without looking ’round a corner for potential threats, often for good reason, so now Jack wants out of the killing business.

Jack’s bloody retreat to a hideaway cabin in Sweden, where assassins attempt to take him out, and he’s forced to kill his innocent lover as part of his getaway, has convinced him it’s time to retire.

Jack flees to Italy and calls his longtime employer, Pavel (Johan Leysen), for help. Pavel says Jack is losing his edge and getting sloppy, but agrees to help him escape to a small Italian town until the heat from the recent killings dissipates.

Jack is wary of new places and faces, but he reluctantly befriends the town’s priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who quickly sees the hired killer for the troubled soul he is. For companionship, Jack employs the services of a beautiful prostitute, Clara, played by Violante Placido, who is frequently asked to shed clothing, perhaps to keep audiences awake. Clara quickly falls for Jack, even as he attempts to keep his distance, to avoid a repeat of what happened in Sweden.

As Jack begins to settle into a new life, Pavel tells him he’s got a final assignment for him: create a special long-range rifle for another assassin, Ingrid (Irina Bj rklund). But as Jack begins to assemble the weapon, he begins to wonder if he’s making the tool of his own demise.

Despite attempts at staying in physical shape — the film treats us to several shots of a shirtless Jack during his workout regiments — Jack is grinding down mentally.

He’s an aging Jason Bourne, a perfect killer whose life is haunted by regrets, bad memories, and the realization that gunslingers rarely die of old age. The American is super spy James Bond in the twilight of his career, weathered, and tired.

Clint Eastwood took on such a role in The Unforgiven, as a retired outlaw-turned farmer pressed into killing, and the actor put a stamp on his career with the performance.

Perhaps Clooney was thinking something along those lines when he took the role. It’s certainly an interesting choice for the 49-year-old. Typically, as movie stars become bigger, their acting grows in proportion. Bigger paychecks mean bigger, over-the-top performances.

Clooney, though, is working in reverse of that trend. His characters, and by extension his acting, are continually becoming smaller. Jack is the smallest yet, with perhaps half the dialogue of a normal Clooney character. It’s a testament to Clooney the actor that he finds plenty to say through subtleties in body posture, tone, and expressions. It’s a stripped-down performance that offers Clooney at his best and most vulnerable.

Also worthy of notice is Placido, who delivers a quietly effective performance and gives some warmth to an otherwise cold film. Like Clooney’s Jack — and really, all of the main roles — Placido’s Clara is a character that proves more interesting in the film because of the actor.

The screenplay for The American, based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth, was written by Rowan Joffe, who previously worked on the horror film 28 Days Later. Joffe treats the thriller as an art film exercise, with little to hold our attention other than the constant drone of some nearby danger.

The film was directed by Anton Corbijn, a rock photographer who made his movie debut with Control, the mesmerizing biography of Joy Division’s troubled frontman Ian Curtis. As a photographer, Corbijn has a wonderful eye for scenery, and he, along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe (Control), captures some wonderful, travelogue-worthy images of the Italian countryside. But beautiful pictures can only carry a movie so far.

And like a vacation slideshow by the in-laws, The American is a long-winded and lethargic journey that’s of no particular interest but to those involved.

Contact Kirk Baird at


or 419-724-6734.

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