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The American

dir: Anton Corbijn
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It must be quite a burden, not just being an American, but playing THE American. How do you summarise millions of lives and hundreds of years of complicated history in one movie?

You have The American of the title played by George Clooney.

That distinguished salt-and-pepper hair, those smoky eyes, that smug grin; who else can represent everything from exterminating the natives and calling it manifest destiny to dresses made out of meat and massive planet-sized cars that run on endangered species thrown straight into the fuel tank?

George Clooney, that’s who.

I had heard two main comments regarding this flick: 1) that it was a good flick, and 2) or that it was an extremely slow, extremely boring flick. Well, I was totally sold on those ends of the spectrum meeting somewhere in the middle. Who wouldn’t want to watch a decent flick that’s also tortuously dull?

Is it in truth a dull flick? I didn’t think so. The pace is perfect for the story it’s trying to tell, and I guess the lack of over-editing and jump-cutting shaky cam probably put off those hoping for the hyperkinetics of another Jason Bourne-type flick.

The reality is that this is of a piece with something like the Jason Bourne flicks. There’s no actual connection, and stylistically and thematically they couldn’t be more different. But there is an intersection in the overall scenario that means something to me.

The flick opens with a bearded Clooney and a bare-arsed Swedish babe lolling about probably post-coitally. When out walking in the snow, Clooney’s character seems to freak out when he sees some other footprints in the snow. A not-very-competent sniper takes some shots at him. He kills the sniper, and then, just to be sure, kills his confused and surprised girlfriend. He then hunts down and kills some other guy that was also clearly sent out to kill him.

What to make of this? Of course we understand why he kills hit guys sent to kill him, but why the hell would he kill that scrumptious Swedish fuck-bunny?

Because he’s The American, motherfucker, and don’t you forget it.

He shaves his beard and scampers off to Italy, having short, grunting phonecalls with a boss or associate called Pavel. We are left to wonder, or at least I kept wondering, how we were supposed to relate to this character, since he’s going to be in every shot of the flick, and we’re going to spend so much time with him, and we saw him kill some woman for no good reason.

He, being The American, travels to a region of Italy so picturesque and postcardy that I was surprised it didn’t mutate into a flick about a middle-aged American divorcee travelling to Tuscany and finding herself through rich peasant food and fucking one of the rough locals, within whom beats the heart of a poet.

No, The American doesn’t go for that kind of shit. He’s a paranoid loon who sees danger around every corner. We’re supposed to see him as kind-of the end result of what happens to a Jason Bourne-type superspy-assassin type when he reaches middle age. Sure, he might still be in peak physical condition, and Clooney ensures there are plenty of scenes of him working out and showing off his abs in case there’s any doubt in the audience’s mind (at least, the female half of the audience).

But his mannerisms, constant behaviour, girlfriend-murdering ways, the flat but stressful tension that seems to surround him even at rest implies that even if you live as long as you do in their trade, the eternal vigilance and guardedness wears away what little humanity you have left, leaving you a highly competent shell, ultimately.

Clooney gets this across not in the way that I generally would have expected him to. In other films where he’s tried to convey something similar, he uses a hangdog face so droopy and forlorn that you’d think he was trying to out-sadden a bloodhound. In something like Solaris he used that expression for most of the flick’s length. In Up In the Air, he used his trademark smirk to cover-up the utter lack of soul inside.

Here he uses a flatness, a lack of facial expression to indicate where the character is at. It sounds easy, the idea that you’re supposed to not do or show anything, but as anyone who’s ever been photographed for a magazine article, for a book cover, or by the police for mug shots, trying not to have an expression makes you look like you’re trying too hard, and looks odd. Models master the art of vacuity, of leaving the face an empty mask, but it’s a bit harder for actors, because they have to move and talk and eat as well for their work.

Clooney does this very well, but I can see how that, merged with the measured pace and non-showy approach to violence, might have put a lot of the complainers off. What he does might not be as exciting as Al Pacino screaming and swinging for the cheap seats, or Matt Damon beating up on some old man, but it’s right for the character and right for the flick.

During his enforced exile in a strangely depopulated area of Italy, he both gets additional work through some other assassin who needs a custom weapon for a hit, which he sets about meticulously crafting, and strikes up a relationship with a local prostitute called Clara (Violante Placido).

We really don’t expect too much realism in our flicks these days, do we? I can’t claim to be an expert on prostitutes, whether they be from the Abruzzo region or anywhere else, but I would suspect that few if any of the prostitutes of the Abruzzo region of Italy look like Violante Placido. The main reason is that the awesomely named Violante Placido is so unbelievably young and attractive that surely her character would have worked her way up to the big leagues of Rome and Naples by now.

But, no. She was waiting around, for someone like Clooney’s character, to fall in love with. And he, despite his long-standing paranoia, and his clear knowledge that he might have to kill her some day soon in order to avoid having to pay for another economy class ticket on the train or something, perhaps might fall in love with her too.

Let’s just say, despite the cool, measured and professional way every single other element of the flick is handled, this particular plot point ultimately means the flick has about as much credibility in the believability stakes as Pretty Woman.

The relationship, considering the ease with which he killed the other woman for less reason at film’s beginning, might not be believable, but it’s part of that arc that these kinds of characters are supposed to go on in order to make us, the mug punters in the audience, give a damn about their character’s adventures.

It didn’t really impact positively or negatively, and I guess she was pleasurable to look at in the altogether.

Slightly more believable is the relationship Jack or Edward, or whatever Clooney’s character name is, strikes up with a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), where they both work through their issues whilst speaking cryptically about their pasts. It’s not as crass as Jack going through a full Damascene conversion and crying about his life of murderousness and casual girlfriend-offing. But it shows that at least there’s the hint of a possibility that he could change.

Of course, this is completely contradicted by what a creature he has become from years of this stress, of always protecting oneself, of always expecting an assassin around the corner, and always being prepared for it. No-one can get away from that kind of legacy.

Anton Corbijn previously directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control, which was one of the better biopics about a musician that’s ever come down the pipe despite having Samantha Morton in it. The flick was incredibly precise and stylish, and gutting in its way. This flick is nothing like his debut, but still possesses his obsessive attention to framing and shot composition, and is remarkably well put together. There are strong themes here, an appreciable tension, and inside jokes, like the television in a café playing Once Upon a Time in the West, or songs on the radio referring to an American (recalling Sophia Loren singing about an American in The Boy On the Dolphin). There’s even a bit where a local corrects Clooney’s Italian by telling him to say, “Not “an” American, THE American.” And it’s hard not to see the Vespa – car chase that occurs as a deliberate piss-take as well. So, in its own ways, it’s a very drily amusing flick.

It will, however, also put a whole bunch of people to sleep. Audiences don’t want their murderous action characters/flicks generously paced, cool and clinical. They want them shouty, jittery, explode-y and thrilling. In short, they want Bruce Willis in RED as a superannuated spy kicking young people’s arses and taking names, not a pensive, brooding Clooney banging hookers and contemplating his empty life.

Forewarned is forearmed.

7 times Italian women surely aren’t all so attractive that even their prostitutes look like goddesses out of 10

“A man can be rich, if he has God in his heart.”
- “I don't think God is very interested in me, Father.” – maybe if you dressed a bit sluttier, Mr Butterfly, it surely wouldn’t hurt – The American