In “The American,” George Clooney, as we are constantly reminded, is playing an American. He is also playing a professional assassin. For the filmmakers, there is some kind of equivalency between being an American and being an assassin. Apparently there are no professional assassins who are not American.
Based on the Martin Booth novel “A Very Private Gentleman” and directed by Anton Corbijn from a screenplay by Rowan Joffe, “The American” is about a very private gentleman indeed. Clooney’s Jack doesn’t make friends easily because they tend to die when they’re around him. An unknowing girlfriend, for example, gets it between the eyes in the opening minutes, propelling Jack into hiding in a mountainside Italian village in Abruzzo. “Don’t make friends,” his handler reminds him.
But nobody counted on Clara (Violante Placido), the resident prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold who is particularly taken with the large butterfly tattoo nestling between Jack’s shoulder blades. “Mr. Farfalle,” she calls him, and she’s not referring to pasta.
This butterfly motif is omnipresent in “The American.” When Jack, working a new job from Abruzzo, constructs a super-duper high-powered rifle for a mysterious hit woman (Thekla Reuten), during target practice he delights in the white butterfly that alights on her thigh. Jack’s way of showing delight is, however, minimal. He deadpans his way through life, though he always seems to be chewing gum. In “The American,” chewing gum is what passes for characterization.
Jack is not a happy camper, as the nosy local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) is fond of pointing out. Suspecting Jack’s cover story about being a photographer is phony, Father Benedetto tells him that “any man can be rich if he has God in his heart,” to which Jack replies, “I don’t think God is very interested in me.” Touché.
But redemption is on the way. Jack falls for Clara and wants to close out his career as a hit man and live an honest life with her. I’d be more sympathetic about his remorse if it weren’t prompted by a luscious babe – if it were prompted by, say, all the people killed in his line of fire. But these days you take your redemption where you find it.
Corbijn, a renowned portrait photographer, and his cinematographer Martin Ruhe offer up many pretty pictures of Abruzzo, though this movie may not exactly serve as an incentive to travel there since its quaint streets have a tendency to load up with corpses. Everybody seems to speak English, though.
Clooney, particularly earlier in his career, was often compared to Humphrey Bogart, and his role here is reminiscent of Bogart’s hardened criminal Roy Earle from “High Sierra,” except that he’s about as emotive as a brass doorknob.
At some point in their careers, most male actors want to play (a) Hamlet, and (b) a hit man. I hope that Clooney has gotten “b” out of his system. Grade: C- (Rated R for violence, sexual content, and nudity.)