If you’re thinking about a career as an assassin, “The American” may give you reason to reconsider.
As George Clooney plays it in this stylish but sparse drama, a hit man’s life is no bed of roses. Oh, there are beds, to be sure, but they’re barren, loveless places of fleeting physical heat to break up the long stretches of solitary cold.
There’s stunning international scenery, as you might expect, but it’s just a backdrop for one secluded hiding place followed by another. There are little cups of coffee in quaint little Euro bistros, but it’s hard to savor your beverage when you’re always worried about who might be coming through the door.
You don’t sleep very well. A book slipping off your bedside wakes you up in a nervous, reflexive move for your gun. You avoid human contact, communicate with as few words as possible, and enter into relationships knowing that some day you might have to pull the trigger on the very person you’ve let into your life.
It’s a pretty grim existence, and Clooney’s character in “The American” is as glum as you might think a person in his line of depressing work would eventually become. It’s the world of James Bond with all the occupational hazards but none of the cool.
Laying low in an Italian villa while he completes what he vows will be his final assignment, Clooney’s “Jack” (who also goes by “Edward,” both of which are assumed to be assumed names) is a weary, wary gunslinger anxious to walk away after one last shootout, one in which he doesn’t even have to pull the trigger. All he has to do is build the weapon. Then he’ll be free, like the butterflies with which he’s obsessed.
Clooney, one of Hollywood’s top leading men, doesn’t exhibit here any of the big-screen gifts that have made him a box-office star---there’s no charm, no wit, no glimmer of mischief or twinkle of warmth in Jack’s weary, wary, warrior’s eyes. As such, “The American” will probably disappoint a lot of his fans, as well as a lot of moviegoers in general who come expecting a typical slam-bang, R-rated summer action movie with a blast of snap, crackle and pop.
If, on the other hand, you don’t mind an artsy movie that’s brave enough to test your patience with a plodding pace, empty-shell characters and barely any big-screen pulse at all, step right up. You’ve found it.
The people around Jack/Edward don’t ever learn much about him, and neither do we. His guarded friendship with a local priest provides some clichéd musings on morality in their brief conversations, and his wham-bam dalliance with a village prostitute awakens something in him resembling a desire deeper than sensory pleasure.
Will Jack be able to get away from it all? Will he spread his wings and fly? Will love be waiting? You find out, but the answers would mean a lot more if you ever came to know anything, and thereby really care, about the distant, detached mystery man known only to the foreigners around him as “the American.”