[Screen It]

(2010) (George Clooney, Thekla Reuten) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: An aging assassin is compelled to accept one final job before retiring.
Jack (GEORGE CLOONEY) has spent too many years as a contract assassin, either killing people himself or making guns for other assassins to shoot people. He wants out of the life and craves seclusion. When someone orders a hit on him, Jack takes the opportunity to meet with his enigmatic boss, Pavel (JOHAN LEYSEN), in Rome. There, Pavel arranges for Jack to hide out in a small, secluded Italian town.

When Jack gets to the town, though, he doesn't like the looks of it. So, he decides to pick his own hiding spot in nearby Castel del Monte. There, he meets two people. The first is Father Benedetto (PAOLO BONACELLI), an inquisitive priest who wants only to discuss sin and redemption. The second is a good-hearted prostitute named Clara (VIOLANTE PLACIDO) who wants to start a new life with him.

Pavel, though, has one more job for him. Jack is to construct a special rifle for a female assassin named Mathilde (THEKLA REUTEN). Jack tells him that this will be his final job, as he has become paranoid of everyone around him. His suspicions eventually prove true when two of the characters turn against him, leading to a climactic game of cat and mouse.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I am so glad I saw "The American" alone at a critics' screening on a muggy, overcast Monday in late August. The film centers on a single, solitary man named Jack (George Clooney), who has lived for years as a contract assassin and has become worn down by the life. He craves only seclusion in a small Italian town, preferably with a hot woman at his side. But his old life may not allow that new life to become possible. A Swedish hit team has it in for him. His boss doesn't want to let him go. And his rampant paranoia restricts him from having any real human connections.

"The American" is quiet and brooding. A slow burn, to be sure. And the more I nestled into my theater seat with no one around to tell me, "Ah, this is dull. Ah, this is slow. Ah, this is boring," the more I got into it.

Now, I admit. A major reason I'm high on this picture is the crushing overload of big, loud, dumb, over-edited, overly digital action films I've had to sit through in recent years. The more CGI and Real-D 3D and shaky cams have taken over modern action filmmaking, the more I have craved a solid, low-key suspense film like this one. Here's a flick that believes the best way to ratchet up tension in a sequence isn't by making a couple dozen quick edits a minute or using computer trickery to make human bodies do things that are only possible in cartoons. It's by just putting two characters in a tight alley, both with guns, both wanting to kill the other man, and seeing who is the better shot.

When I heard Clooney would be working with a music-video director on this one, I thought two things: 1) that the film would be edited a la the "Bourne" movies, and I would need a motion-sickness pill before and after just to remain upright; and 2) he would be a puppet to the star and would kowtow to his every wish and indulgence.

I am pleased to report that Anton Corbijn thwarted both those expectations. This is probably the most hushed and still "action" film to come out in years. It's almost an "inaction" film as Jack spends a good deal of the movie just suspecting that someone is around the next corner without there actually being someone there. Such scenes often play out with no music and no dialogue with only Clooney's eyes to carry the drama. You know something is really about to go down if a single bead of sweat forms over either of the man's thick brows, not because James Horner or Hans Zimmer is telling you so with his percussion and horns.

As a negative, the film offers very little in the way of originality. It's basically the old story of the gunslinger who wants to go legit, but can't escape who he really is. There is a hooker (Violante Placido) with a heart of gold; an enigmatic boss (Johan Leysen) who communicates only via hushed phone conversations; and a younger, colder assassin (Thekla Reuten) who the boss might be grooming to take Jack's place.

But Corbijn is going for a definite European vibe here, and he succeeds. The film is less concerned about violence and sex (although there is plenty of both throughout) and more focused on mood and tone. There's always a danger the film could drift off into tedium and pretentiousness as it tries so hard to be an "anti-Hollywood" thriller. Clooney, at times, seem to be struggling to conceal his trademark half-grins and million-dollar charisma. This isn't the cool, suave George of "Ocean's 11" and "Out of Sight." This is the restrained, kind o' sleepy George from "Solaris."

But there is no doubt that he and Corbijn have made the exact movie they set out to make. It's based on a novel, and it has the feel of a novel unfolding through a visual stylist's filter. This is one that's going to linger in the memory for a while. I give it a 7 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed August 30, 2010 / Posted September 1, 2010

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