The American Review

Image for The American

Armourer/assassin Jack/Edward (Clooney) goes to an Italian village/small town for one last job/existential crisis and sex/love with a local hooker/beauty (Placido).


Repetition can smother a point, as well as underscore it. The American opens on an image — beautiful, elegant — and closes on a variant of it. The world turns — nature is implacable. So, now you know.

The second feature from acclaimed photographer Anton Corbijn is concerned with existential issues: chewy and important. It is also — like his debut, Control — about a lost soul. And is quite unlike what many will expect from an assassination thriller starring George Clooney. Though for a bloke who comes over as carefree in interviews, Clooney has made an awful lot of movies about mid-life crises, hinging on heroes who may have cause to regret their emotions: Solaris, Syriana, The Good German, Michael Clayton, Up In The Air and more. So, the big questions come: Is it safe to feel? Can love redeem? How much time is Violante Placido going to spend starkers?

It’s not only her that’s exposed. And the thing about subtext is, really, it needs to be under something. The American may not have a lot of dialogue, but it sure has a lot of ‘text’. The. Words. Carry. Meaning. Every. One. Of. Them.

This may seem like a knock on Rowan Joffe’s screenplay (adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman), but it could say as much or more about the director’s decision to shoot in a moody, meditative manner — and cast characterful Euro faces who deliver dialogue as if it were carved in stone. Amid the motion-sick pandemonium of a Bourne — or with more verbally dextrous performers — the conversations might not have felt so self-consciously weighty.

But Corbijn enjoys silence and master shots — the slow-build over the whizz-bang. There are some terrific scenes — the shocking snow-bound opening, the tense car-park face-off — but having a café TV play Once Upon A Time In The West invites dangerous comparisons. The American definitely doesn’t have Sergio Leone’s sense of fun.

Photographically it’s interesting, boldly lit in single colours for certain sequences: the brothel is, of course, red; the streets shot under urine-yellow. Some will find it striking, others a little too composed.

Carrying everything is Clooney, in a restrained, stripped-back performance — subdued and soulful. But he is our era’s Cary Grant, and it’s hard not to long for his North By Northwest. That picture was also, incidentally, about a man who fears he has a hollow heart. But the theme was disguised by fun, thrills and repartee. Eva Marie Saint asks, “Roger O. Thornhill… What does the O. stand for?” The answer comes: “Nothing.” You don’t need telling twice. Repetition can smother a point, as well as underscore it.

A muted thriller, weighed a little too obviously with existential angst. Still, sexy and tense, with a brave, bare performance from Clooney.