With George Clooney playing the strong and silent type, Anton Corbijn’s photogenic The American has Tinseltown set firmly in his sights. All chestnuts blazing.
The Italian Job by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Highly regarded for his classy rock videos and Ian Curtis biopic Control, photographer Anton Corbijn is aiming high with The American. At least, that’s the plan. And with George Clooney as a retiring gunmaker, beautiful aerial cinematography and labyrinthine Italian locations, the film certainly has star quality. Jealously ogling Melville’s Le Samouraï, the original forebear for lonely fusspot assassins everywhere, Corbijn’s first departure out of the music industry certainly has a killer first reel. But The American ends up flailing in a rather odd combination of hackneyed hitman clichés, sloppy soppy butterfly metaphors and sluggish pacing, all of which (very) slowly hobble this icy thriller.
Based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth, The American begins in snowy Sweden with Jack living in semi-retirement in a wood cabin with girlfriend Ingrid. But when assassins move in, he rather brutally cuts his losses and escapes to Italy. Dialling in with crime boss Pavel, Jack heads to Castelvecchio in Abruzzo before getting small-town jitters and relocating to the more secluded and more Escheresque mountaintop Castel del Monte. Here, in quiet seclusion, he embarks on his last job (meticulously assembling a rifle for a shapeshifting glamorous assassin), he’s also chased by Swedish avengers and while courting tart-with-a-heart Clara.
Signor Farfalla, as Clara calls him, perhaps because of his butterfly tattoo or his fascination with near-extinct lepidoptera, is a very discreet hero. Instead of the book’s butterfly painter, The American‘s Jack adopts the guise of a documentary photographer come to Abruzzo to capture coffee-table landscapes of the bel paese. In his hideaway, he tirelessly drills and grinds away at his Ruger, customising it to fit into a briefcase, and recalibrating it with a silencer. Like Le Samouraï’s Alain Delon, Clooney’s a master craftsman, meticulously perfectionist. But in Corbijn’s hands, it’s a rather easy and self-congratulatory simile, which for Melville was existential self-doubt.
Corbijn’s photography is stunning, his beautiful snow-capped arctic landscape in sharp contrast to the luminous majesty of Castel del Monte. Aerial topographic shots of Clooney’s car on winding mountain roads betrays Jack’s slow spiralling out of mastery. Perhaps a better metaphor as Corbijn losing his grip on the story. There’s a raft of corny self-references as Jack stumbles over the Italian phrasing of “Il Americano” (Corbijn’s original title) before being corrected to”L’Americano” by a local. And as he sups his watery americano in a cafe, listening to Renato Carosone’s Tu vuò fà l’americano it all seems like a quip too far. And in the end, the most beguiling American in the film is the rifle, a mechanical MacGuffin that also backfires.
Jack’s shady boss and his cold-hearted colleague Mathilde make the final-reel revelation rather unsurprising. In fact, there’s something unintentionally poetic about the hitman making the gun he knows he’ll be killed with. But Corbijn aims at something more philosophical – a Butterfly Man fascinated with endangered species, ready to escape his cold, criminal cocoon and live peaceably in Abruzzo’s warmth with Clara. Yes, he’s old school, a liability in danger of his own extinction. But as the CGI butterfly flitters upscreen, Jack’s soul heavenwards incarnate, its redemptionist clumsiness strikes a cringeworthy pose. It’s part of a moral cosmos, borrowed and underdeveloped from the source novel, like lascivious Father Benedetto and his bastard son, mawkishly underbaked.
There is a lot to like about Corbijn’s The American. As an ice-cool thriller, it’s entertaining. Its opening ruthlessness sending a pleasant shock of blood to the head. Its tightly controlled pace is enjoyably contemplative, even if the final showdown’s too slow, more filler than thriller. And the images are luxuriant enough to make you want to pull up a sunlounger. Perhaps its most original sin is hubris, aiming at existential hitman masterpieces like Fred Zinnemann’s The Day Of The Jackal or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. When perhaps it should have had rousing yarns like Vantage Point or In The Line Of Fire in its crosshairs instead.
The American is released in the UK on 26th November 2010