George Clooney’s persona goes “dark” with a vengeance in The American; little compares to shooting a guiltless lover in the back of the head (in the opening scene) for instantly dispelling career-accumulated goodwill. As the pseudonymous “Jack,” a laconic assassin and arms expert whose snowy Swedish hideaway in that bleak curtain-raiser is quickly littered with three corpses, Clooney puts the trademark bonhomie and seducer’s charm completely on ice for the film’s first half, and as his morose killer holes up in an Italian mountainside town, it appears the star-producer and director Anton Corbijn might refrain from attempting to get the audience “back”; that they might be committed to defining Jack as a cold, driven survivalist like the Lee Marvin of Point Blank (invoked by the movie’s ‘60s-style poster). But as Jack’s guilt mounts, even as he pursues his lethal trade by customizing a rifle for another, unknown triggerman, The American surrenders to familiar, hackneyed sentiment, making hash of the ruthless antihero of the early reels and softening the Old Gray Stud in a way that’s not so different from Up in the Air after all.
Not that Corbijn, the veteran music video maker whose feature debut was the curiously flat Control, doesn’t know how to frame a shot or exploit the cloud-shrouded beauty of the Abruzzese mountains. Rising to the demands of a paranoid, existential suspense thriller, albeit one with only three action sequences, he keeps the first hour eminently watchable with the prisonlike textures of stone steps and medieval buildings that loom over the vertiginous planes of the town of Sulmona, and wide shots of sparsely inhabited streetscapes that suitably reflect Clooney’s perpetual wariness. The use of a Leone western clip on a tavern’s TV is grating, but Corbijn has some of that master’s spatial savvy, and you can even forgive the metaphorical flight of a hawk when he cuts to an enigmatic aerial patchwork of village roofs.
It’s the plot’s descent into predictable turns and familiar comforts that ultimately traps Corbijn and his leading man, despite the against-type loner-itis established by Clooney’s solitary calisthenics (like a worldly Travis Bickle buffed up in middle age) and crafting of his made-to-order weapon for a glamorous contact (Thekla Reuten) with whom he shares only shoptalk about specifications, recoil, and ammo. But though Jack’s liaisons with a young prostitute (Violante Placido, in one of the most topless roles in recent Hollywood annals) begin as merely recreational, if notably versatile, she soon morphs into the umpteenth golden-hearted hooker who’s a miscreant’s imagined vessel to a better life—unless she’s actually working with the Swedish gunmen who’ve tracked Jack to Abruzzo.
Adapted from a novel by Martin Booth, Rowan Joffe’s script provides a friendly, brandy-quaffing local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) to dispense some second-rate Graham Greene psychology to the American visitor: “You cannot deny the existence of hell; you live in it.” But ponderousness isn’t The American‘s biggest sin; it betrays its potential with utterly expected ironies (who will be found in the sights of that custom-made rifle? You’ll guess), an egregious final shot derived from Jack’s otherwise underdeveloped identification with butterflies, and confirmation that its initial, grim flintiness was just the misdirection of a hollow good-badman tale.