By some viewers, 'The American,' based on the novel 'A Very Private Gentleman' by British author Martin Booth, will be deemed 'a work of art.' By others - a dull, overly long character piece, lacking in both plot and pace. So which is it? Well each of these views can be fully appreciated and understood after having reached the 100 minute mark. It depends almost entirely on the level of your expectations and whether or not you have the patience to be rewarded by what for me was a very engrossing and compelling piece of film. But my immediate reaction after having left the cinema 100 minutes and nine pounds sixty later? – Certainly that this is a film which cares more about taking a look at the behaviour of character rather than your conventional Hollywood tale full of stylish edits, breakneck cliffhangers, predictable dialogue and cheesy love scenes. Ultimately though, my very first thought was 'what a pleasant surprise.'
- If film-goers are used to watching a lot of the Hollywood thrillers like the one's I've just described (e.g. 'Quantum of Solace,' 'Taken'...etc – good films in their own right) then of course 'The American' will seem like the slow, boring, "nothing really happens" film it's been accused of being. You can't come straight from having watched Angelina Jolie's 'Salt' or Liam Neeson's 'The A Team' and expect to enjoy 'The American,' which you'll have seen advertised as a spy thriller with George Clooney, so it's only natural to think that it will follow in a similar fashion. It doesn't. - Instead, 'The American' follows more in the wake of thrillers like Mel Gibson's 'Edge of Darkness' in terms of action/suspense and more like Jeff Bridges' 'True Grit' in terms of character/plot development. Instead of long winded action set pieces, it has sudden but meaningful bursts of violence which work almost as effectively as in 'Edge of Darkness' to contrast the slow but involving scenes of character and intrigue that worked so well in 'True Grit.' So if your tastes run more toward the mainstream of Hollywood thrillers then maybe this is not the film for you.
However, what if I told you the film contains a car chase, five assassination attempts on Clooney's character, a femme fa-tale who isn't all she appears to be, a suspenseful foot pursuit through a narrow maze of streets with two professional hit men trying to outwit and kill one another, a steamy sex scene, a face to face showdown and a 7 person body count (more than 'The Bourne Ultimatum'). Well it does. But although this may not sound boring, I can understand how the direction and execution of these set pieces could be interpreted as such. Anton Corbijn, a Dutch director known for his photography and music videos, effectively has the opposite of Paul Greengrass's flashy editing of hand-held cameras used to create a sense of urgency for the Bourne films, instead opting for a more reflective take on the action.
Fans of Clooney will either love or hate this film. Those who aren't fans of Clooney are likely to love it, as he gives arguably the most UN-Clooney like performance of his career to date, using the same solemn intensity we saw flashes of in 'Michael Clayton' and 'Syriana' and turning it up to the max. Gone is the easy smile and likable charm that Clooney is known for exuding better than anyone, replaced with hard eyed stares and a strong sense of vulnerability that Clooney does well not to overdo when communicating the troubles of his flawed character to the audience.
Aided by a fresh and solid supporting cast with the likes of Thekla Reuten (In Bruges), Violante Placido and Paolo Bonacelli, Clooney has a great deal of talent to play off and Herbert Grönemeyer's contemplative music score only underlines and adds to the atmospheric, brooding quality that the film proudly possesses. Reuten brings a coldly effective steeliness to her emotionless assassin, Placido is immediately likable as Clara, the sweet and loving prostitute and Bonacelli delivers a knowing, world weary gravitas to his philosophical role as the priest that makes you hang on to his every word and whose scenes with Clooney are the forefront for the film's moral statement and raising of questions.
So eventually, the audience end up rooting for a hit man and a prostitute, showing that not everyone is black or white. Assassination of innocent people and prostitution as occupations are controversial to say the least, so why do we end up liking these characters and wanting them to be happy? Even the squeaky clean priest is shown to have kept a dark secret, hidden away in his past. So the film's message is that everyone, no matter who they are, strives to be better and find redemption. Every single character is revealed to have sinned one way or another and a powerful line from the film is Clooney's response to the priest when being told to seek God's forgiveness, 'I don't think God's very interested in me Father.' Something which could be said for all the characters and all of us in general, as highlighted by Clooney's meaningful line, 'All men are sinners.'
Verdict: Not perfect but with wonderful craftsmanship from Corbijin's subtle direction to a powerful, hard hitting performance by Clooney, this is the first of its kind for the thriller genre. And hopefully not the last. If you keep an open mind and watch it with no expectations, then like me - you'll find 'The American' to be a very pleasant surprise. A smart and subtle piece of drama.
Review by MARC PAYNE
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