The director of the much-acclaimed Ian Curtis biopic Control, is back with a bang. Anton Corbijn discards the guitar and picks up the rifle in The American, a thriller about a killer who discovers his soul. Adapted from British novelist Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman (1990), the film stars George Clooney as Jack, an assassin-cum-weapons expert hiding in an ancient Italian town after a botched attempt on his life. There, he takes on one last job to produce a custom-made rifle for a client of his boss and strikes up a few relationships that may ultimately change him, or doom him.
The art of suspense is not showing too much; think of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. For a first endeavor in the thriller genre, Corbijn does surprisingly well. With sparse music through the movie and prolonged scenes of anticipation, a paranoid atmosphere crackling with tension is created, suitably fitting the story of a hunter being hunted. At times, the film even felt like a horror flick. The action is quick and concise which, in my opinion, makes the violence more unsettling. Fight scenes are a battle of wits rather than a series of extended Mexican standoffs. The American excels due to its elegant minimalism which allows the weight of the acting and suspense to surface and embed itself in the audience’s mind. The backdrop of the scenic Italian town of Castel Del Monte is aptly exploited, and imbues the movie with a hint of noir.
George Clooney pulls off the character of Jack with relative ease. Not surprisingly of course – his Oscar applauds were from roles similar to this in Michael Clayton and Syriana. Forgoing his trademark charisma, he transforms into a craggy lone wolf struggling for his survival. It marks a departure from the charming or comic characters he played last year.
Fortunately, this movie does not tread down the clichéd path of redemption. It is more selfish and base, which makes it slightly fresh
In The American, he is morbid and tense, even in the presence of beautiful women; a stoic demeanor replacing suave wit. Jack kills cold-heartedly, without hesitation as the wonderfully-executed opening scene shocker proves. Like all movies of this kind, the protagonist has a deep-seated longing for the company of another human being. Bouts of longing sneak out of Jack subtly. Fortunately, this movie does not tread down the clichéd path of redemption. It is more selfish and base, which makes it slightly fresh.
The plot, though it does not suffer from being too predictable, is somewhat too simplistic. Perhaps the focal point is intended to be on the character and his development. A repressed undercurrent of insecurity permeates the film with Jack’s deepening anxiety and relentless vigilance and scores the film points for bringing to life an assassin on the run. Corbijn also does not shy away from gory violence and explicit sexuality, but uses it to intensify the emotional impact of the drama.
For a character-centric film, however, Clooney’s character fails to carry sufficient gravitas to warrant it a must-watch film. The fault lies not with the acting but in the dramatic arc of the protagonist which is not refined or complex enough to draw the audience into it. Though it starts off well-paced, it becomes rushed towards the end. The antagonist felt a little two-dimensional, and peppering the relationship between the antagonist and Jack with a little complexity could be that pinch of spice that makes all the difference between that gourmet bolognaise and the off-the-shelf microwave pasta.
Nevertheless, Corbijn deserves praise for the meticulous attention invested in Jack as an arms expert – weapon aficionados would adore this film. Many scenes depict in fine details the production of that custom-made gun with “the firing capacity of a sub-machine gun and the range of a rifle” as demanded by his femme fatale client. You get to marvel at the way Jack improvises parts of the gun with tools found in a car workshop. The movie is part a study into the intricate art of gun-making as we tag along with Maestro Jack.
The American is a brooding James Bond. It chooses harsh reality over glamour, drama over grandeur. It is not a tour-de-force of Anton Corbijn or George Clooney but is, even so, worth watching during one of those Friday nights when you’ve got nothing else substantial to do.