Starring: George Clooney, Irina Björklund, Thekla Reuten
Directed by: Anton Corbijn (“Control”)
Written by: Rowan Joffe (“28 Weeks Later”)
If you think the term “minimalist thriller” sounds contradictory that’s because it is. It’s also the perfect way to describe George Clooney’s new film “The American,” a tame and tensionless art-house spy movie that will only be appreciated by small circles familiar with European cinema from the 60s and 70s and those with a resistance to films with glacial pacing. Don’t anticipate Jason Bourne or James Bond. Try Just Bored.
Directed by Anton Corbijn, who did a fine job with the music biopic “Control” in 2007, the story follows Jack (George Clooney), an American hitman who is forced to lay low in Italy after he is targeted by assassins while spending time with his girlfriend in Sweden.
Despite sounding a bit like the set up of the engaging 2008 film “In Bruges” where an assassin played by Colin Farrell hides out in Belgium after a hit goes bad, “The American” offers up its narrative with much more restraint. In turn, Clooney, while still exuding his debonair style as always, can’t translate his usual star power into anything of substance.
Screenwriter Rowan Joffe’s script, which is adapted from Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman,” internalizes much of Jack’s thoughts and emotions. While Clooney is talented enough to convey the melodrama without getting tacky, we’re left with a solemn performance maintained by a pretentious story without much backbone. Without the characters being on the verge of something, they never seem to be in any actual danger.
Spending most of the film’s runtime in Italy, Jack receives instructions from his boss Pavel (Johan Leysen) to construct a customized rifle for another assassin (Thekla Reuten). Despite Pavel’s orders not to make any friends, Jack begins a tryst with a local prostitute (Violante Placido) and a pointless friendship with a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) all while trying to figure out who is responsible for the attempted hit on him.
Besides his tour through the small and beautifully-shot Italian town, neither Corbijn nor Joffe seem interested in creating something more than an observational drama. Sure, there is an underlying feeling that there could possibly be another assassin lurking in the shadows, but the film is so self-aware of its own subtlety it becomes aggravating to watch Clooney play it so straight.
By the end of “The American,” it’s not so much a climax that takes place in the waning moments as it is proof that all the characters are still conscious in some way. As a moviegoer, don’t expect you’ll be able to devote the same attentiveness.