The American Director: Anton Corbijn Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Johan Leysen, Paolo Bonacelli ** It would be easy to form the impression that The American sees George Clooney muscling in on the James Bond/Jason Bourne business. Easy, but wrong. It's true, Clooney's American in Europe trades in death - he's a professional assassin who also crafts high-powered weapons to order. But this isn't an action thriller; an in-action thriller would be closer to the mark. There are precisely three violent set-pieces in the film, one at the beginning, one at the end, and one a little over the midway point.
In the first, deliberately muffled shoot-out, unknown killers target Clooney during a romantic tryst beside an ice-covered lake. He handles the situation with the ruthless efficiency we might expect, but it becomes clear over the next 100 minutes or so that this man is not without regrets, even if he seems incapable of articulating them. He hops on a train to Rome, from where his fixer, Pavel (Johan Leysen) warily dispatches him to a remote, mountainous area of Abruzzo to sit quietly and wait for further clarification. And this is what he does, looking nervously over his shoulder the whole time, and accepting that mythical "one last job" beloved of existential crime stories; an assignment to fashion a rifle for the beautiful, mysterious Mathilde (Thekla Reuten).
The American is an audaciously quiet movie from Control director Anton Corbijn - an exercise in suspense tricked out with some rather pretentious, distinctly European baggage. Consider: Clooney's character is variously and interchangeably referred to as Edward and Jack - though the nickname Signor Farfalle (Italian for Mr Butterfly) is the one that really sticks. That's because when he isn't shooting people, honing his abs, or whittling a gun out of spare auto parts, he'll have his nose in a guide to butterflies.
It's an odd, even perverse detail, and it charms both the women who spend their time with him in Abruzzo - so much so that they come up with the same nickname separately: the client, Mathilde, and Clara (Violante Placido). Or are they in cahoots? Jack/Edward/Signor Farfalle can't be sure, and his uncertainty could be fatal - to him, or to the two of them. Which is all very well, but a tough sell for Clooney, hardly your stereotypical lepidopterist. And that's without the distracting cameo from a CGI butterfly, masquerading, unless my guess is inaccurate, as a symbol for this man's endangered soul.
Several amiable but evasive chats with the village priest (Paolo Bonacelli) hint that Corbijn is concerned with spiritual matters - but the film never explains why we should worry whether a mercenary killer is destined for eternal damnation, or if a quick getaway with a continental hottie can be counted as a redemption of sorts. At least the surface is impressive. Corbijn began his career as a photographer, and his compositions are so striking you almost look for the gilt-edged frame around the screen. Adjust to the film's siesta pace and you may be sucked into its hardboiled romanticism, but I venture to suggest there is less here than meets the eye.