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Thursday, September 2, 2010

The American Hits Its Target, but Misses the Bull’s-Eye


The American: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars 
Father Benedetto: A man can be reached, if he has god in his heart.
Jack/Edward: I don't think god's very interested in me father.
Here’s a film that I can easily tell, without looking at comment sections in various areas, will be labeled by more average filmgoers as “boring,” “slow,” or “if it wasn’t for that naked girl, I would have walked out.”  The majority of that credit can probably go to how the film has been marketed, with its fast cutting, bursts of action, and the setting up some of the dialogue as bad ass one-liners.  Being familiar with the director involved and having some sense about what kind of film this is, I knew what I was getting into.  The film is very slow paced, with a minimalist approach to the story and characters, but it is accomplished quite well.  That being said, just because it takes this approach, doesn’t mean I need to shower praise all over it.  While Clooney is quite good as a brooding and slowly unraveling assassin, and the ways this film creates tension are well handled, the overall experience is fairly joyless and works more as an exercise in style.

George Clooney stars as Jack or Edward (we’re not quite given an answer, so I’ll just call him Mr. Butterfly, referring to the tattoo on his back).  Butterfly is a professional assassin of sorts, who seems to be in a bit of a jam.  The film starts off in Sweden, where Butterfly seems to be comfortably resting with a woman in a safe haven.  This peace is interrupted by men wanting to kill him, resulting only in their deaths, as well as the woman whom Butterfly was staying with (In an attempt to provide more humor than this film wants us to have, I think I’ll start saying Mr. B).  Mr. B then contacts his handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen) in Rome, who tells him to lay low in a country town in Italy.  Mr. B complies, and heads off to a town that he chooses, where the film will spend the rest of its time.

During his stay, Mr. B spends his time going through his work out routine, having thinly veiled conversations with the local priest about past sins, developing a relationship with the nicest prostitute in town (Clara, played by Violante Placido), building a weapon to hand off to another assassin, looking over his shoulder for other possible assassins out to kill him, and generally enjoying the Italian restaurants and countryside scenery.

The first, longer paragraph occurs in the first 10 minutes of the film.  What I have described in the shorter, second paragraph is what describes the rest of the film.  It is very minimalist story telling, but it also doesn’t fall back onto Clooney’s natural charm either.  Much like his good buddy, director Stephen Soderberg, for every fun and broadly appealing film, Clooney does take the time to branch out an experiment in more obscure features, such as this. 

Clooney is very restrained as the brooding assassin, slowly coming apart and in a state where he would like to seek redemption in some way.  He is good here, with much of the film focused on showing him in thought mode, while still working on his skills as a deadly craftsman and one who is experienced enough to correctly associate his paranoia with an actual threat.  It is also worth noting that he has clearly put himself (or remained in) great shape, as we see him working out often, as well as watch him nail some of the few action beats in this film.

Again, it’s really the style of this film that is its centerpiece.  The whole thing is very deliberately constructed to maintain a very somber tone throughout, only approaching the big moments in bursts.  Director Anton Corbijn tries very hard at creating a very measured drama, breaking away from the more conventional elements that this film could have easily went through.  Really, this movie reminds me a lot of director Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control; and really, if anyone is seeking a film even more restrained, dialed down, obscure, and minimalist, then go watch that film.  Both of these films surround assassins in deep thought throughout the film, only breaking occasionally to offer up more, such as a gun shot or a beautiful woman for our protagonist to interact with.

One element this film does manage to bring in quite well is its level of tension.  When the film does get to its moments where characters are in peril, the way it builds up these sequences is quite well accomplished.  And you really can’t deny Clooney of looking cool when he’s speeding down an Italian alleyway on a Vespa, gun in hand.

While I wasn’t blown away by this film, I would recommend it, but with some notes, which I have explained throughout.  The film is less an action/thriller and much more of an art house drama, with burst of thrilling moments.  It’s well acted and made (and I didn’t get to it, but the cinematography in this film is gorgeous), but it’s slow and reserved in its storytelling.  Watchable indeed, but for a more patient audience.
 Jack/Edward: All men are sinners. Everything I've done, I've had good cause to do.

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