Movie Review: The American — Deceptive Previews Show Bang Where There Is Only a Whimper

It is not unusual for us here at Eclipse to have opposing opinions on the same topic, and “The American” is no exception, especially since there still seems to be misunderstanding in regards to what moviegoers expect to see.  This movie is the perfect example of what happens when the previews basically trick you. Previews and commercials are designed to increase excitement about an upcoming release and give you just a taste of what to expect. That quick little morsel has done its job if it makes you want to go in for the entire feast.  But moviegoers partaking on this particular feast are being left with a bad aftertaste.

Based on the trailer, you get the feeling that you will see a touch of Bond, maybe a little touch of Bourne, and definitely a touch of Clooney charm. In reality you get a film that is practically the antithesis of that and instead might have been better had it been making the rounds at summer film festivals with its artsy, noir-ish presentation and countless unanswered questions left open for discussion. Or at least advertised itself as such. But this isn’t a summer film festival; it is a feature film starring mega-star, humanitarian, and all-around nice guy George Clooney, and the audience is led to believe it will experience an exciting espionage-type thriller. In that regard, and a number of other reasons, “The American” was disappointing. What one expects to be the last bang of the summer blockbusters, turns out to be a weary fizzle.

The press release describes Clooney’s character, Jack, as an assassin who is constantly on the move and always alone. The problem is that this is never defined since we are not told what Jack really is; we can only make an educated guess. We do not know if he is an assassin, a spy, a CIA operative, some underworld figure, or whatever else he might be. We are not told who he works for nor are we shown what relationship exists between Jack and Pavel, who appears to be Jack’s boss – after all, he is giving him orders. But Pavel seems to have issues of his own, yet we learn nothing about those either. Perhaps these are details that are just not important since the focus seems to be on Jack and his internal struggles and emotions.

The movie opens with a snow-covered landscape in Sweden where Jack is enjoying some female company [Irina Bjorklund]. Quickly, the action escalates and several hit men ambush them. It doesn’t take long for Jack to dispense of the threat and in the process we see that this assassin has some highly honed skills. But this opening sequence is as deceptive as the movie trailer. We see action, skills, mystery! — exactly what we came to see, based on those darn previews. And exactly what we don’’t see much of during the rest of the movie. After this ambush, Jack places a call to Pavel asking about The Swedes, gets no answers, then heads for the Italian countryside. 

While in the quaint town of Abruzzo, Jack accepts an assignment to meet with the mysterious Mathilde [Thekla Reuten], who wants him to construct a specific weapon. There are a total of three meetings with Mathilde, her hair color changing along with her wardrobe each time. And if you do not anticipate Mathilde’s true purpose by the second meeting, then my guess is you probably fell asleep somewhere around Act Two!

If you did fall asleep, then you missed out on some early scenes of Jack showering and working out in his dumpy apartment. The purpose of those scenes was not to showcase a shirtless Clooney, but to stress that this aging assassin still works hard to keep himself in shape, as well as allow the viewer to see two very specific tattoos.  Clearly, there was significance to those tattoos, especially the one on his back whose butterfly theme seems to be recurring, but this is another one of those things that just never develops into something significant.

Jack strikes up a friendship with the local priest, Father Benedetto [Paolo Bonacelli], who offers Jack some food for thought about his life in one very poignant line, and directs him to Fabio, the local mechanic, where Jack picks up some spare parts for the gun he is fashioning for Mathilde. The Father has a secret too, but that is another one of those things you can predict long before you’re supposed to.

Seeking female companionship, Jack visits a house of ill repute. What starts out as sex for hire, develops into a romance with Clara, played by the beautiful Violante Placido.  There are many occasions where Clara’s naked body is featured (back, front, and all angles). Perhaps this is to appease the male audience and offset all the times the camera is allowing the female audience to simply enjoy Mr. Clooney’s fine features. But if the prerequisite sex scene isn’t a bit much (okay, we get it, he’s with a hooker and this is an R-rated film), then the excuse to see Clara naked once again by having her take a dip in the river (but, isn’t it winter or definitely cold out?) certainly gets a little bizarre. At least the film has striking cinematography and beautiful views — of the Italian countryside, of Clara, and of Jack!

Director Anton Corbijn takes the artistic route to too many scenes (lingering on doors opening and closing, the random dog walking across the screen, protracted focus on certain townspeople for no reason, etc). This artistic route also includes watching Jack do simple things — walking around town and through narrow streets, working out, assembling the weapon, and taking note of his surroundings since he is a suspicious, jumpy type. Somehow, this attempt at suspense and mystery falls flat. Especially when there are too many over-the-shoulder camera shots implying someone is following, only to have nothing happen! Perhaps the intent of this was to give the viewer an understanding into Jack’s suspicions and paranoia. In reality, it simply got annoying. There are a couple of times where the suspicious characters finally make their move on Jack but even these are a bit bland with the use of ineffective jump-scares and silly plotting — i.e. if you are following someone through dark narrow streets in order to kill them, should we really be hearing the clicking of your heels on the cobblestones?

And of course my biggest pet peeve, in either film or television series, has to be plot holes! I don’t mind a good mystery or espionage thriller, but by the end of the movie I expect to have certain answers to questions in regards to the character’s job, motivation, who or what they work for, who is after him, and most importantly, why he is a target. Movies are meant to be self-contained stories that establish a course of action, develop characters’ personalities, and take you on a journey in reaching the conclusion. “The American” fails at presenting many answers and by the end of the movie you do not really seem to care any more, other than having a lingering curiosity. Of course, using your own imagination and extrapolating situations and events, you can probably create adequate answers to all the lingering questions. Very much like what is done at the wine and cheese reception at the conclusion of a summer film festival.

“The American” is about 90 minutes in length, but there are so many times where there is very little action and even less dialogue that it seems to drag on. The few times that some action finally takes place, it is anti-climatic in its predictability. Even the ‘surprising/shocking’ ending is really no surprise, and becomes almost cliche. As cliche as smoking a cigarette after sex.

The screenplay by Rowan Joffe, who also wrote “28 Days Later”, was based on the novel ‘A Very Private Gentleman.’  I can only hope that the novel did a better job in defining characters and motivations, as well as answering some questions.

Ultimately, it is not a bad movie when it is taken strictly as a character study of the aging assassin who seems to have lost his edge and is looking for a way out of this dangerous life and possibly finding love in the process. In fact, it is a quiet, subtle, nuanced performance from Clooney where his character internalizes many emotions as Jack the assassin becomes the hunted instead of being the hunter. And the story unfolds in a calm, restrained manner instead of frenetic chase scenes and loud explosions. If anything, this movie suffers from false advertising in making itself seem like something it is not and therefore leaving its audience disappointed, much like expecting a chocolate cake and ice cream for your birthday and getting a fruit platter instead. Not that fruit is bad, it is just not what you were expecting at that particular moment. Or expecting an action-packed summer blockbuster and getting a quiet, subtle, artsy independent-style film instead.  For that reason, I can only give “The American” an average rating.

Final Grade:  C+