George Clooney plays Jack, a very bad man. How bad? Well, he shoots his innocent and unsuspecting girlfriend in the head in order to preserve his anonymity (don't worry, I'm not giving away a key plot point). Bad as Jack is, life has become a wearying exercise in paranoia, violence and personal detachment. Not a good place to be for someone whose eyes smolder like Clooney's. After vengeful killers track him down in Sweden (we're never made privy to their motives), the morose assassin and arms expert holes up in an Italian mountainside town. While laying low, he's hired to build a specialized rifle for a fashionably gorgeous gunman (Thekla Reuten), meets an aphorism-spouting priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who seems like a parody of a Graham Greene mouthpiece, and, of course, hooks up with a beautiful young prostitute with a heart of gold (Violante Placido). To be fair, Placido has wonderful nipples. It doesn't take a degree in film theory to guess how hard it will be for Jack to make this his last job and who'll end up in the crosshairs of that very special rifle.
For the nearly first hour, it seems like Corbijn and Clooney are onto something, creating an existential anti-action film of sorts, one that focuses on the emotionally deadening and guilt-haunting existence of a killer-for-hire. But this is no Day of the Jackal, which had no intention of redeeming its ice-blooded assassin, or Point Blank, which brilliantly captured the dog-eat-dog world of criminality, with Lee Marvin proving that survival comes to the most ruthless. Instead The American too-quickly capitulates to tired Hollywood conventions, as Jack becomes another aging but studly anti-hero out to save his soul. It's like Up in the Air with lots of guns and a lot less dialogue.
Which isn't to say The American isn't without virtues. Clooney, convinces with his man of few words, snuffing out the light that normally makes his eyes twinkle with charm. There's a tightly coiled menace to his performance that keeps you guessing what he'll do next — even when the uneventful script makes it blatantly clear where things are going.
Corbijn is similarly effective, a born filmmaker who knows how to frame gorgeous establishing shots, artfully ape the spatial compositions of Sergio Leone (which he too bluntly references in an aside), and build the kind of paranoid suspense that raises heart rates. Yeah, the hawk and butterfly shots are cryptic (and undeveloped) metaphors that'll only appeal to Film 101 students, but for a sophomore effort, The American proves he's a director worth watching.
Ultimately, it's hard to figure out what kind of film Corbijn and Clooney thought they were making. One would assume that they had read Rowan Joffe's script (an adaptation of Martin Booth's novel, A Very Private Gentleman), and yet little in their carefully moody approach suggests they were on board with its cheap theatrics. Whatever their assumptions, The American proves that even the most artfully conceived notions of existential panic can't trump the power of cliché.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.