The American

September 2, 2010

The “assassin’s last job” film, which is a slightly broader term than my previous favourite, the “assassins slowly crumbling” film, has in its time established a certain set of genre tropes.  They always involve the solo hitman, an emotionally closed off, consummate professional who, like any good loner, sticks to a rigorous routine to reinforce the self-discipline that makes him so damn good at his job.  Something comes up to throw the anti-hero of course, usually a woman but sometimes a child or even an unlikely partner that creates an emotional connection that causes him to get sloppy or call into question his line of work altogether.  It’s a well-worn concept, and was even sent up by Jim Jarmusch in The Limits of Control, where his stoic, meticulous hitman was met by a series of bizarre contacts that felt the need to talk about old films or science or existential crises to the totally unresponsive man.  Still, it’s a remarkably robust set up, yielding an amusing comedy (Grosse Point Blanke), a trashy actioner (Hitman), a decent actioner (Leon), an unexpectedly deep character study (Collateral) and even an outright masterpiece (Melville’s Le Samourai).  Like a jazz standard, it all comes down to the variations of the theme, or as Collateral’s Vincent put it, “behind the notes.”

Anton Corbijn’s The American, starring George Clooney as the hitman or, in this particular instance, gun manufacturer attempts to mimic the greats of the genre and give us an aging professional going through an existential crisis.  The problem is that he’s actually, it seems, already gone through that crisis before the film has begun.  It begins in a secluded cabin in snowy Sweden, where he is shacked up with an attractive, naked woman.  When he is attacked, he kills her to leave no witnesses, seemingly knowing that another attractive, naked woman would be coming along shortly.  He heads down to Italy where he contacts his boss, who gives him the job of making a gun for a contact of his.  He meets her, gets the specs, and begins work, all the while taking in the local scenery of the small Italian village where he’s staying.  He visits a hooker, Clara (Violante Placido), and before you know it, etcetera etcetera.  So no points for seeing every ‘twist’ a mile away, but thankfully Corbijn has little to no interest in playing them up.  The particulars of the plot don’t matter as much as Clooney’s hitman’s (alternately called Jack and Edward or, somewhat annoyingly, Mr. Butterfly, but we’ll call him Jack for brevity’s sake) reaction to them.  Clooney drops all manner of charm, instead really going for the cold and confused, but still overplays it.  He’s too close to the surface on too many occasions for a character that should be much more guarded.  Alain Delon in Le Samourai barely emotes for a majority of the running time, making the small gesture of dropping a set of keys mean the world, but as Jack is clearly in turmoil from the start his character has nowhere to go.  Individual scenes are played well, but the slightly nervous paranoia and the calm and collected gun maker never effectively pull together.

For a film with such a deliberately measured (some would say “slow”, but not I) pace, there’s a real effort on the screenwriter, Rowan Joffé, and Corbijn to bring the subtext out to the surface, as though they don’t trust the audience to just understand.  There are several scenes of drink and food shared between Jack and a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) that feel forced, with dialogue that is either too on the nose or too pompous to work.  There is also a scene of troubled sleep, where we’re fed unnecessary flashbacks to the opening, and then Jack wakes up accompanied by an orchestral stab that is so out of place you have to wonder if it was a note from the studio.  We understand what’s going on, so if you’re going to trust the audience with the pace and the repetition of routine, there’s no need to spell anything out in such a heavyhanded manner.

Still, it is a sumptuous film to look at, and you would expect nothing less from Corbijn, here working again with cinematographer Martin Ruhe.  The scenery is gorgeous to be sure, but what’s impressive is the use of architecture and landscape in framing and composition to suggest more than just the beauty of the surroundings.  Isolation, the Spartan lifestyle, and the paranoia are all suggested through the simplest of techniques, which makes the aforementioned flaws even more grating.  It’s a shame, really, because it is a largely admirable attempt all in all.  But the problems are too many, and as it reaches its climax, the clichés weigh too heavily, and it ends with a final shot with such hackneyed symbolism that leaves its sins beyond forgiveness.  Corbijn understands style, but not the substance.


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