Clooney gives subtle, nuanced performance in film lacking both of those things
The American seems a bit out of place in the action thriller genre these days. A quiet piece about man’s acceptance of his life as a hired killer, it would fit in more 30-40 years ago when Melville was crafting Le Samourai instead of a time when Michael Bay crafts Transformers films. It’s refreshing in a way.
Jack (George Clooney) is a hired killer in on one last job. He’s not the one pulling the trigger, only designing the weapon, but there’s a lot of blood on his hands over the years. It doesn’t bother him; he accepts it as part of his life. Based off the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth, takes the concept of the hired killer on his last job concept that’s been done to the point of being another action movie cliché and takes it back to its roots in the French New Wave with Melville’s masterpiece.
Jack is an intriguing man not for what he says and does but by how he does it. Powerfully built but not overly muscular, he’s built like a real soldier and not the bodybuilder type that permeates the genre. Give credit to Clooney for looking the part as Jack is the sinewy type, a body built from years of pushups, pull-ups and other body weight exercises. Jack isn’t the type who spends hours in the gym and as such uses the age old exercises to stay in good condition; this little thing of character isn’t much to the story but it means major thing for the character because it gives an insight into who he is and where he’s been.
He’s a rough man, with what’s probably an Army Special Forces tattoo on his shoulder, and Clooney has done a lot of work on the physicality of the character. This isn’t Clooney playing his usual older, suave and sophisticated gentleman. Jack is the guy you hope you don’t run into in a back alley, who notices little things that only someone who’s been an experienced “operator” (military slang for someone who’s been efficient in Special Forces) would and reacts accordingly.
One scene in particular stands out. Jack is being hunted by an assassin down a stone alleyway, his foot steps (and those of his predator) loudly announcing their presence. He takes off his shoes to muffle the noise, giving him an advantage because now he’s quieter and can move more effectively to garner a better chance at killing his would be attacker. It’s small and subtle, and easy to miss, but it’s something that gives an interesting look into how his mind works. It’s also in how he handles weaponry where we find something out about him. This is a man who has probably used any number of rifles and pistols and handles them the way a professional would; the way he looks down the sights of a powered scope while putting a weapon together tells you much more about him than anything he could do or say.
Clooney has certainly gone outside his wheelhouse for the film. This isn’t some charming womanizer looking to learn a lesson about life and love; Jack’s a first rate killer who does his best to blend in and out of situations. It’s an interesting character choice; 35 years ago it would’ve belonged to Steve McQueen instead of with Clooney. Clooney’s presence is still there, as his charisma, but he’s toned it down into a menacing presence as opposed to a charming one.
For all the interesting things Clooney does in the film, the rest of The American is rather perfunctory for the genre. There’s the girl (Violante Placido) who shows him love and makes him want to leave his profession, the rival assassin (Thekla Reuten) who may or may not want to kill him and the handler (Johan Leysen) coordinating his efforts with a cool, calm efficiency to go along with the film’s tragic finale. Anton Corbjin, who directed Control (the superb Joy Division biopic) shows a flair for subtle film-making but doesn’t add anything new into an otherwise stale genre. The American, for all the nuances of George Clooney’s performance, is a low key thriller that can’t escape the clichéd genre conventions that hold it back from being a great film.
Director: Anton Corbjin
Notable Cast: George Clooney, Irina Björklund, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten, Violante Placido
Writer(s): Rowen Joffe based on the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth