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Review: The American

The American
09.01.2010
7 10

PLOT: An American assassin named Jack (George Clooney), on the run from a group of rivals, hides out in a small Italian village while working on his next assignment, which involves crafting a complex mini-machine gun for a fellow assassin, the beautiful and cold-blooded Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). While there, he befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacelli), and falls for a local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido).

REVIEW: Anton Corbjn’s THE AMERICAN can’t help but be a bit of a disappointment. The director’s last film, the Ian Curtis biopic CONTROL, was such a dazzling and brilliant piece of work, it would be almost impossible to craft a worthy follow up. At the same time, I think it would be highly unlikely for someone as talented as Corbjn to make a bad film, especially if paired with a talent like George Clooney. Sure enough, THE AMERICAN is a good film, but not much more than that.


It’s pretty much a full-out homage to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni , particularly his 1975 film, THE PASSENGER, which was another existential tale of an American abroad (in that case Jack Nicholson) who runs afoul of a deadly enemy. The chief difference is that in THE PASSENGER, Nicholson was essentially an innocent, while here, Clooney’s a bit of a vicious bastard. Within the first five minutes, Clooney does something so shocking that I imagine right there a whole chunk of his audience (you know, the ones that still call him “Gorgeous George”) might file right out of the theater.

Those that stick around will be rewarded with an elegiac, Euro-thriller that has lots of beautiful scenery, and beautiful ladies, but relatively little in the way of out-and-out thrills. However, this lack of thrills isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as that isn’t really what this is about. It’s essentially a character piece, with Clooney’s hit man being somewhat humanized by his interactions with the elderly and sympathetic priest who wants to save his soul, and the local prostitute who falls for him, but knows nothing of his past.


Overall, it’s effective. With Corbjn at the helm, you know you’ll at least get a good-looking film, and sure enough it’s exceedingly well photographed. Over the years, Corbjn’s most famous work (CONTROL, his Depeche Mode music videos, and his photography) has been mostly in black and white, but here he embraces color, although once again, the palette is clearly inspired by Antonioni. Special note has to be made of the sound mix, with THE AMERICAN being the quietest film I’ve seen in theaters since THE ASSASINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. The sound is very effective, but will likely result in the film only really being appreciated once it hits blu-ray/DVD, as this is the type of film that could easily be ruined if you see it with anything other than the most well-behaved of audiences.

In the way of acting, this is probably as close to a one-man show as Clooney’s ever gotten, with him being in almost every scene, and everyone else being window dressing. His love interest, Violante Placido is stunning (and she gets a few luscious nude scenes), but the character is still the old clichéd hooker with a heart of gold that’s been done to death.


Luckily, Clooney’s cold-bloodedness in the lead keeps him from coming off as too much of a cliché. While he’s not an out-and-out villain, it’s clear he doesn’t have much of a conscience (a point driven home by a scene where Clooney watches Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, with whom he shares a few characteristics). The only time Clooney shows any emotion is when he thinks his own life is in danger, and it’s made clear that his character is terrified of death, and will do anything to preserve his own life. Kudos to Clooney for playing such an atypical role, and it’s his willingness to try different things (along with his impeccable choice in scripts/directors) that makes him such a consistently interesting guy to watch.

So yes, THE AMERICAN is a solid, well-crafted film. However, it’s far from a great one, as this feels like a bit of a lark for all involved, and I wish Corbjn/Clooney had been able to come up with something a little more substantial. There’s so much of Antonioni here that THE AMERICAN verges on being too much of a homage,and not terribly original. I also have my doubts as to whether mainstream audiences will have the patience to sit through the film, as Antonioni’s nothing if not an acquired taste.

Nonetheless, I found it reasonably entertaining, but it’s not the thriller it’s being sold as. It’s certainly not much of an action film, with the film only containing one out-and-out action scene, which is a brief Vespa-chase/ shootout, that actually feels tacked on to provide a little action for the trailers. Still, if you want a lower-key, moody piece with some light thriller elements, than THE AMERICAN might be just the antidote you’re looking for after a summer of bombastic action. It’s not even close to the fantastic work either Clooney or Corbjn’s done in the past few years, but it’s still a worthy film, and worth seeing.

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