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Movie Review: Hitchcock would be proud of 'The American'

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“The American”
Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Violante Placido, Johan Leysen
Rated: R

If you like your action thrillers heavy on action, chances are you may find “The American” to be lacking.

Outside of the opening credit scene - with no less than three deaths by gunfire in a matter of mere minutes - the film relies more on psychological thrills than shoot 'em up, flashy special effects sequences.

But it does its slow burn quite well and is every bit as tense and squirm-inducing as any Bond or Bourne film.

Without the presence of A-list actor George Clooney (who also serves as a producer), “The American” likely would be an art-house film with a limited audience. With him on board - and no other big-name actors - the film managed to lead the box office grosses during Labor Day weekend.

After the incidents at the beginning of the film Clooney, who plays a character named Jack but also is known as Edward and Mr. Butterfly, is sent by his mysterious boss to lay low in a small Italian village, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Built on a hill, the village is beautifully filmed and is a perfect backdrop for this type of movie.

Although Jack is hiding in Abruzzo, the boss still has a job for him. He's to build a highly specialized rifle and silencing device for a client that will contact him in the village.

The client turns up and is a knockout. Played by Thekla Reuten, Mathilde is not your typical looking assassin. But her personality lets the viewer know she knows her business. She gives Jack the requirements for the gun, and Jack gets some of the parts and pieces via mail, while picking up others at a local automotive garage. He then sets about on an intense and focused routine of building the weapon in his room.

Movie critic Roger Ebert has pointed out that Clooney's character is an American version of a classic samurai warrior. It's a good comparison. Jack is a man of few words, disciplined, completely focused and seems devoted to his “master.” Also like many samurai, his downfall is falling in love.

He meets Clara, a local prostitute played by Violante Placido. Their business relationship soon gets personal.

The entire film is rather ambiguous - that's not a criticism - and there are more red herrings here than in most films that use that plot device. But some of the herrings are red. Many things are true.

Jack discovers a gun in Clara's purse and since he knows the Swedes from the opening sequence are looking for him, he wonders about Clara'a angle.

Jack also makes friends with Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). The priest tells Jack - who is posing as a photographer - that he “has the hands of a craftsman, not an artist” and advises him that confession is good for the soul. Jack's love for Clara and his friendship with the priest slowly begins to change Jack's world view, at least the view of his world.

He tells the boss that he will finish this assignment, complete the gun and deliver it, but then he is retiring. One thing we've learned from films of this nature is that once a character is in as deep as Jack, getting out is not going to be an easy matter.

And then the Swedes show up in Abruzzo. The third act of “The American” features the most action and a chilling revelation. It's also filled with more twists.

It's not exactly modern film noir but it's hard to know if any of the characters (outside of Father Benedetto) is a hero or a villain.

The plot isn't confusing but it does demand attention. Some will find the pace slow, but director Anton Corbijn - best known for music videos featuring U2 and Metallica and his unflinching documentary about the late singer Ian Curtis - has an engaging visual style. Screenwriter Rowan Joffe, working from the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth, knows how to develop characters, even without going into much of a back story about any one of them. “The American” takes place in the now. The slower than usual pace builds up a head of steam that is more exciting than most action-oriented action thrillers.

Think Hitchcock, not Schwarzenegger. Even so, my guess is that the title character in the film will indeed “be back,” maybe in a prequel.[[In-content Ad]]


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