The melancholic killer, the hooker with a heart of gold, the sinister boss pulling strings from afar, the man of the cloth confidant — the deeper you get into “The American,” the second film from Dutch photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn, the more it seems like a moving museum of movie archetypes than anything that quite finds its own footing. Underneath the luster of its Euro tailoring, it’s a subdued neo-Western run aground in an Italian hill town — a neo-Spaghetti Western, then, a point underlined, should you have missed it, by a bartender pointing out the Sergio Leone film playing on his TV.
Fortunately, it has George Clooney, glowing at full movie star wattage in the role of Jack, sometimes Edward, who is as far as is gleanable an assassin (“you won’t even have to pull the trigger,” he’s assured when coaxed into that always inauspicious one last job) and manufacturer of custom weapons forced to go to ground in Abruzzo after an incident in Sweden ends messily. It’s not necessarily beauty or talent, that quality, though Clooney has never been short on either — it’s a magnetic ability to draw focus, to make us want to watch him. And we do, despite the minimal lines with which his character is drawn, a man who seems to have suddenly grown a conscience and awareness of the consequences of his actions after years spent in shadowy, violent industries.
Jack is a craftsman, as the town’s genially prying priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) observes, and, like other characters Clooney has played recently, from “Up in the Air”‘s Ryan Bingham to the titular fixed in “Michael Clayton,” competence at his job is his foremost trait, whether dispatching the men who keep trying to kill him, handling a meeting with an coolly professional woman (Thekla Reuten) who needs a high-powered gun for reasons Jack doesn’t question, or assembling that specialized weapon for her with scavenged parts and precision tools. He works alone and is good at what he does, but doesn’t seems to take any pleasure from it, which raises a distracting question I realize I’m not supposed to ask about why he’s in this field that costs so much with so little apparent return in the first place.
But never mind. What’s pressing is that Jack’s “lost his edge,” as his handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) puts it — he’s paranoid and jumpy, not for good reason, he’s haunted by what happened in Sweden, and he’s lonely, which is how he gets skittishly drawn into a romance with a vibrant prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) he first encounters as a customer. Love, the downfall of all professional killers! With a pretty girl pleading to be taken away from all this on his arm, Jack develops a reason to live right when others step up their efforts to murder him.
Castel del Monte, the lovely medieval town where the film is set, seems like a terrible place to hide (when everyone knows you as “the American,” you’re hardly inconspicuous) but a great place in which to shoot action sequences — its narrow, twisting cobbled streets lends themselves well to clever chase scenes and shootouts down the steps and in the squares.
Shot by Martin Ruhe, who Corbijn’s first film “Control,” “The American” often places its star alone in the corner of the frame as if the world is pulling away from him, the forlorn subject of an especially dismal Edward Hopper painting.
“The American” doesn’t, in the end, add up to much, but it’s a pleasing exercise, teasing tension from it’s own quiet and from the gifts of its cast, all of whom make a solid impression with scant material, from Reuten’s icily blue-eyed calculation to Placido’s voluptuous vulnerability to Leysen’s barely concealed exasperation with Jack’s signs of softness. And Clooney manages a fiercely human moment in what’s otherwise a remote thriller, pounding on his steering wheel in frustration when things have gone wrong. It doesn’t sound like much, but the understatement of the gesture, in context, is deeply affecting, speaking volumes about someone who hasn’t let himself make many mistakes.
“The American” is now playing in theaters.