In The American (2010), director Anton Corbijn’s follow-up to his well-regarded Ian Curtis biopic Control (2008), George Clooney plays Jack, an assassin and arms expert who’s in hiding in the Italian countryside following a botched mission in Sweden that resulted in an unforeseen fatality. In Italy, Jack begins to contemplate a different future, even as he takes on a job to procure a weapon for a mysterious contact (Thekla Reuen). But, inevitably, it turns out that his past is more difficult to shake off than he may have hoped.
Corbijn’s film starts strongly, with a confident, well-staged opening scene and a beautiful credit sequence. It continues to grip as Jack makes his move to Italy (the gorgeous village of Castel del Monte in Abruzzo) and begins to settle into the community and make connections. Ultimately, though, classy visuals and an art-conscious ambience don’t compensate for the movie’s threadbare plot and risible, meant-to-be-profound dialogue. (The script is by Rowan Joffe, adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and I’d argue that it‘s a far less accomplished piece of work than his upcoming adaptation of Brighton Rock.) The movie takes itself fatally seriously and its dead spots leave the viewer plenty of time to ponder the narrative’s fuzzy logic and flagrant inanities - such as why it is that every significant woman who crosses Jack’s path - including the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) who falls in love with him - looks like she’s just stepped off of a fashion shoot. The film may present itself as a thriller for intellectuals (ie. one with few thrills and portentous conversations about the nature of sin) but it doesn’t have much more depth than the average James Bond film. The only comedy is unintentional and comes from heavy-handed touches such as our hero significantly ordering an “Americano” and later stopping off in a bar that’s playing (you guessed) "Tu vo fa L'Americano." (He’s the American. Geddit?) Another unfortunate moment has him observing Once Upon A Time in the West on TV in a bar and being informed by the bar-man: “Sergio Leone…Italiano.” But my favourite bad scene is his churchyard conversation with the priest (Paolo Bonacelli) he befriends, in which the latter wonders: “How many bastards have been conceived here?”
Clooney (who also produced) just about holds the proceedings together, with a competent if unexciting performance: his range of pensive and brooding expressions is fairly limited, but he’s physically nimble and looks cool doing press-ups. Indeed, The American looks great throughout but its stylish visuals outclass the plot and the dialogue every step of the way, making the movie an unsatisfying experience ultimately, despite a few taut sequences. For a really distinctive recent take on the assassin-as-existential-hero movie check out Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009) instead - more profound, and more fun, too.