A definite “gobble gobble” sound came wafting in ahead of The American. Why would a George Clooney action thriller be screened for critics just two days before opening? That’s the way giant turkeys arrive. It turns out the real issue is truth in advertising. A barrage of quick-cut television commercials promised a Jason Bourne–style caper, with Clooney racing along curving European roads, shooting his way out of trouble. The American is actually an arty little character study about a lonely assassin for hire who has become a target and hides out in a picturesque Italian village. It plays like Jason Bourne on Ambien.
There are many George Clooney personalities out there, and this bait-and-switch promotion is not a cool trick to play on fans of Hollywood George, the guy who makes the splashy Ocean’s movies. But it’s not necessarily bad news for fans of Artistic-Cred George, who can help a quiet film like Up in the Air find an audience. The American doesn’t set out to be anything other than a twisty, deliberate film that relies on suspense and paranoia more than car chases and gunplay. The problem is that even on its own artsy terms, the film falls apart long before the end.
As a professional killer known simply as Jack, Clooney takes on his darkest role yet. The film’s early scenes give us gunshot bangs in Sweden, where Jack coldbloodedly escapes unknown enemies. His boss, a mysterious white-haired man, sends him to hide out in a mountain village in Abruzzo, where Jack also takes on a presumably less lethal assignment: to custom-make a gun for a beautiful female assassin. That’s most of the plot right there.
Jack spends a lot of time, in painstaking detail, building that weapon, but director Anton Corbijn creates some taut moments out of his isolation and legitimate fears that anyone he sees might be ready to kill him. Known for music videos and the film Control, about the band Joy Division, Corbijn takes a different turn here and creates tension from silence. There is hardly any soundtrack music, just long silent stretches as Jack sharpens bullets or sits warily in a café—the film could have been called The Quiet American if the title hadn’t been taken. One of the most involving scenes is set in the woods, where Jack and his client test the gun and total paranoia kicks in. You can only wonder which of them—if either—will shoot at the other first.
But there’s no getting past the clichés that overtake the story. Jack visits a prostitute and ... do I even have to tell you that she’s gorgeous and sympathetic and that he falls in love with her? He is, of course, suddenly ready to retire from killing people for a living.
As the danger grows, Clooney’s face becomes a grim, staring mask—a look that’s intense, yet static. He’s not usually such a one-note actor. Plenty of bad performances are saved by editing, and you have to wonder if the opposite happened here: maybe there’s a richer Clooney performance left in the cutting room. Corbijn started out as a portrait photographer, an aesthetic that shapes The American, but there’s such a thing as too much stillness on screen. The Italian village looks pretty, though, and, let’s face it, staring at close-ups of George Clooney is never a hardship.
And in the end the film is all about Clooney’s presence. It took a decade to be made, most of that time pre-George. With someone else in the role it might have been an even smaller, artier film. Or it might never have been done at all. One of the great aspects of Clooney’s career is that he takes risks; you never know which persona is going to turn up. The American offers a rare glimpse at Nice-Try George.