Once upon a time in the distant past of the 1990s, films like “Out of Sight”, “The Peacemaker” or Gulf War venture “Three Kings” has George Clooney firmly billed as an action star. However the dawning of the new millennium has brought certain change to the one-time Bruce Wayne and Dr. Doug Ross: Again and again Clooney has made forays into drama and ‘serious’ film-making, be that through films like “Syriana”, last year’s excellent “Up in the Air” or his very own “Good Night, and Good Luck”, while at the same time maintaining the sort of suave cool befitting a James Bond or indeed a Danny Ocean. And perhaps at face value “The American” could be perceived as a throwback to those formative late 90s. But let the title not delude you, director Anton Corbijn and his star have produced something that is decidedly un-American: Indeed the feel and pacing can very well be termed art-house or European.
Screenwriter Rowan Joffe (son of Roland Joffe of “The Mission” fame) adapts the story from Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman” which takes the set-up of a very classic spy tale: Cold assassin Jack (the Clooney) is at a mid-life crisis, pursued across a continent and takes on one last job that will let him escape the espionage world forever. Forced to lie low in the remote Italian town of Castel del Monte, he gradually becomes attached to and falls in love with beautiful prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) but of course his past is destined to catch up with him. It’s not so much that there’s a huge twist at the end, “The American’s” captivating feature is doubtlessly its moody and atmospheric tone. There’s very little dialogue and overall the movie is very slow and quiet. It’s not a false sense of security Corbijn is lulling us into but rather stretches the audience out on a taught string. From the opening in snow-covered Swedish tundra which then yields to beautiful and extremely eerie arial shots of Italian countryside, the silence is as deafening as any explosion. As a result, when outbursts of violence do punctuate the storyline, they create even greater jump-out-of-your-seat moments.
However the entire movie really rests on Cooney’s shoulders, who stands at the head of a largely unknown cast (to average Joe moviegoer eyes anyway). A difficult task maybe but not for Clooney who has proven time and time again to be a master of his art. It’s a minimalist and subdued performance, many shots for example consist of him staring blankly into space. Similarly in few scenes he shares with other characters like Paolo Bonacelli’s priest or Thelka Reuten’s fellow assassin there’s very little emotion on show, only Placido’s character can eventually get under the cracks in his hardened personality. It’s not the kind of performance that usually wins Oscar plaudits like Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air” but it’s still fascinating to watch Clooney weave himself into these kind of roles, backed up all the way by Corbijn’s lingering photography. As an audience we are drawn in very close, watching for example extended sequences of firearm modification and assembly. This style may be rather difficult for those expecting a Bond film to swallow but those who have a sufficient attention span are very likely to be rewarded with some great thrills and suspense, like those old thrillers used to be.
Herbert Grönemeyer is probably best known for his acting role in Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine classic “Das Boot” but is in fact a very popular singer-songwriter in Germany. “The American” represents his first movie score since a 1986 TV film called “Sommer in Lesmona”. His music to accompany George Clooney is a mixture of some beautiful reflections on piano, joined by orchestral strings and percussion to provide the suspense. Indeed many scenes in the film are so silent, Grönemeyer’s music is the main source of tension and even though it is placed relatively high in the mix does an excellent job of only registering subconsciously. Unlike the film, the music makes no references to the genre that inspired it but despite this it’s an excellent effort and we can only hope to hear more of Grönemeyer in the near future.
“The American” is probably not the best film in the “disillusioned spy” category but thanks to an excellently measured performance from its leading man and direction that knows exactly where it’s going, this film has a pretty good shot at it. All in all it makes for an excellently suspenseful two hours, which can claim it’s place next to the Bonds and the Bournes of this world. For fans of art-house and European style films (love the retro-poster-art by the way!) or for those seeking an introduction, it comes highly recommended.
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