In the parlor game of listing contemporary incarnations of the classic actors of yesteryear (e.g., Tom Hanks as Jimmy Stewart), is there any doubt that George Clooney is today's Cary Grant? Sure, there's the suave, urbane countenance. But Grant's screwball beginnings are not unlike Clooney's Coen brothers turns, while Clooney's darker dramas are akin to Charade and Grant's many collaborations with Hitchcock.
The American sounds like the name of a Hitchcock film, and it is one of Clooney's most brooding works to date. Spanning from snowy Sweden to bustling Rome before finally settling in sleepy Sulmona, Italy, this would-be spy thriller rehashes the formula of the solitary hitman carrying out one last job before getting out of the game.
Under the cover name of Jack, Clooney's taciturn shadow dweller receives instructions from his mysterious minder (Johan Leysen) to construct a high-powered rifle for an attractive female assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Along the way, this American With No Name befriends a wise old priest named Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and embarks on an affair with Clara (Violante Placido), a beautiful, routinely nude prostitute with, yes, a heart of gold.
Loosely adapted from British author Martin Booth's 1990 novel, A Very Private Gentleman, erstwhile music video director Anton Corbijn proceeds at a deliberate pace, intentionally evocative of a 1970s European thriller—even the movie poster is stylishly retro. Contrasting the picturesque Italian countryside with the story's violent overtones, the film hoists evergreen themes of good versus evil and damnation versus redemption. The butterfly tattoo etched between Jack's shoulder blades suggests his desire for transformation. Corbijn has stated that he looks at the film and its underlying morality tale like a Western—at one point, Jack conspicuously takes a moment to watch the opening scene from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West being shown on a television inside a small caffettiera.
However, there is a difference between methodical and languid, and too often The American feels like an exercise in cinematic atmosphere over substance (not unlike Clooney's The Good German). The script filtered through at least four writers before settling onto the credited keyboard of Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later). The screenplay avoids spoon-feeding the viewer, a device that works tremendously during the taut opening scene. Eventually, however, the narrative begins to feel like a gun that never really fires. Even Jack's relationship with Clara is never resolved. Indeed, the most provocative byplay takes place between Jack and Father Benedetto, who somehow sees into Jack's soul and wants to save it while hiding his own skeletons in the rectory.
Clooney's star presence carries the film, and it is worth noting his ongoing, art-imitating-life predilection for playing star-crossed bachelors. When Jack and Mathilde meet to test Jack's rifle, their rapid-fire tête-à-tête about aiming variances and shot suppression contrasts with the beautiful creek bank setting. Jack catches himself looking longingly at Mathilde, fully aware that they are two of a kind who could never be together, much like Clooney's Ryan Bingham and Vera Farmiga's Alex in Up in the Air.
Few actors today—Clooney, Hanks, DiCaprio—both possess and exercise the star power needed to make films like The American. But artistic appreciation does not always produce artistry.