Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer: Rowan Joffe
Cinematographer: Martin Ruhe
Starring: George Clooney, Thekla Reuten, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen
Studio/Running Time: Focus Features, 103 min.
During the 1960s, Italian filmmakers like Sergio Leone were importing big American actors (usually ones that had lulls in their careers and were willing to work halfway across the world for a decent paycheck and foreign fame) to star in what would be called Spaghetti Westerns—films that were enormously successful in Europe but originally ridiculed in America, where they’d eventually be revered for stylistically reinventing the Western. Halfway through the The American, I begin to wonder how much an Italian studio paid George Clooney (no career lull here) to come to Italy to make a film that, except for the striking Coen brothers-like opening, started looking like a weak tribute to Leone’s filmmaking when suddenly director Anton Corbijn gave a wink to the audience and a nod to Leone as the familiar strains of that haunting harmonica from Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” played and the camera panned to a TV where Leone’s film is showing in an Italian bar. It’s a nice little moment in a film that could have used more of them.
After an unsuccessful attempt on his life, Jack (Clooney) flies from America to Rome where we learn from cryptic phone conversations with his employer Pavel (Johan Leysen) that he’s an assassin and that mysterious “Swedes” are trying kill him, though no explanation is given. Jack is told to hole up in the picturesque town of Castel del Monte. While there, he receives an assignment to specially modify a rifle for another assassin, the beautiful Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Jack grimly and methodically does the work while he grimly and methodically interacts with the townspeople.
Before directing his much better debut, Control, Corbijn was a photographer, an identity that Jack assumes in the film. Not surprisingly, many of the film’s high points are the lovely, grand shots of the landscape and the architecture of the city. But a photo exhibit of The American would be titled “Clooney, Pensive.” His melancholic concentration even spreads to other characters in the film, such as the town’s priest who insists on getting to know Jack as they share their thoughtful looks.
A bright light is the performance of Violante Placido as a prostitute with whom Jack becomes (pensively) romantic. Fortunately, the occasional action scenes break up the monotony and/or the suspense (at times it’s hard to tell the difference). Leone countered the deliberate pacing with tangible tension and riveting performances. Clooney has his moments in The American but it’s not enough to carry a film with an awkward sense of suspense.