MOVIE REVIEW: The American


Talented English-speaking actors from foreign countries have won roles in American films for as long as the business has been going.  Scotland has sent us Sean Connery, and more recently James McAvoy and Ewan McGregor.  The Australian pipeline started a long time ago by Errol Flynn has been strong through this generation thanks to the likes of Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Hugh Jackman.  Colin Farrell, Pierce Brosnan, and Liam Neeson are as Irish as leprechauns.  Don't forget the overwhelming masses from mother England including the obvious (Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins) and not-so-obvious (Cary Grant, Christian Bale, and House's Hugh Laurie).  Unless you've ever heard some of those actors and actresses speak in their native accents off-screen, you might never know that they were foreigners.  The same can be said for directors (like hitmakers Inception's Christopher Nolan and Slumdog Millionaire's Danny Boyle) as well.  All have had great critical and financial success crossing the Atlantic to work in American cinema.

When that setup is reversed, and an American actor goes to star in a foreign film, the results aren't always as solid.  There are fewer successful examples of that exchange.  Sure, Clint Eastwood made himself a legend starring in Sergio Leone's Italian westerns like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and actors from Marlon Brando all the way to Adrien Brody will go overseas to star in movies from renowned foreign directors like Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski, but you don't hear about it happening very often.  Do we count David Hasselhoff being a bigger hit in Germany than America as a shining example?  I don't think so!

In the new assassin thriller, The American, George Clooney is taking that challenge.  He is the lone American actor in a film shot entirely in Italy and Sweden by Dutch director Anton Corbijn with a cast of Europeans.  Clooney plays Jack, an American assassin who is laying low in the small towns of the Abruzzo region of Italy.  Somehow, his enemies found him and his lover in his remote wintery Swedish hideaway and brought danger to his home.  Jack escapes, but is older than he used to be and is greatly shaken by what has transpired.  He starts to become a little paranoid and stir-crazy while hiding out in small towns, dodging the people who are still trying to kill him.

When a job offer of supporting work from his boss comes his way to build and engineer a compact rifle from scratch for a rival assassin, he jumps at the chance to keep himself and his skepticism busy.  However, Jack starts to get a little too connected to his new surroundings, befriending a local priest and becoming romantically close to local prostitute as well.  Things get a little more complicated when he decides he wants out of the game entirely.

The American plays like a foreign European film, because it is one in every sense of that style.  That "style" specializes in the minimal and nuanced, unlike big-budget U.S. films.  Rapid quick editing is replaced by lush cinematography with long shots and static angles.  Aspects like the slower pace, the small amount of character dialogue, a very quiet musical score, and even the elements that garner tension and suspense are all scaled back.  Buyer beware.  If you have not been used to or exposed to this style of filmmaking, you may not get into or like The American.  It may come across as too slow compared to something like the Bourne trilogy, starring Clooney's partner-in-crime Matt Damon.

Those differences in style create that aforementioned mixed success when American actors, who we are used to seeing as larger-than-life movie stars, scale everything back to try their hand at foreign films.  Right now in 2010, George Clooney is probably the closest thing we have to a Cary Grant in American movies (funny to see after sharing Grant's British origin).  Thanks to ER and the Ocean's 11 series, he's known for his witty delivery, single sex-symbol status, enormous charisma, signature smirk, and endless charm.  In even his most diverse and challenging roles, including his Oscar-nominated performances in Syriana (which he won), Michael Clayton, and last year's outstanding Up in the Air, some of those magnetic qualities of George always come through onscreen.  That doesn't happen in The American.  

For about two hours, you never see George Clooney smile, raise his voice, or emote any kind of his usual gregarious personality.  It's more serious-minded than Syriana and his most muted performance to date.  For this role, there's nothing wrong with that and it fits the part.  For him to turn off the charm and turn on the focus is equal to the eccentric Robin Williams playing his haunting stalker role from 2002's One Hour Photo.  Much like that performance, the reaction will be mixed.  You will either admire the performer for trying something different and doing it well, or miss his usual self that you are so used to.

In The American, Clooney pulls off muted-serious and still creates a screen presence that demands your attention.  The rest of the film, however, may not be so effective.  The secondary roles of the priest and prostitute ring a little too true to the "voice of reason" and "heart of gold" cliches, making them bad pieces to the puzzle.  While Italy (and its women) always looks great, the scenes of focused hiding, work, and solitude outnumber the scenes of needed suspense for a movie that hyped Clooney planning a calculated assassin.  Maybe we Americans are spoiled and desensitized by the Jason Bournes and James Bonds on our screens, but even a foreign-experienced guy like me was left wanting more instead of minimal.

LESSON #1: KEEPING YOURSELF BUSY WILL TAKE YOUR MIND OFF YOUR TROUBLES-- From seniors in nursing homes, late night third-shift workers, terminal cancer patients, and even those coping with loss and grief, getting back to work and routine or embracing a hobby or distraction can help your mind wander from what's really bothering you and make you forget where your stress is coming from.  It works for secret agents and assassins on the lam too that sleep with a gun under their pillow.

LESSON #2: GET TO KNOW WHO YOU ARE WORKING FOR-- For as much as your employers interview you to see if you are a good fit, prospective employees can do the same for their possible future boss.  Know what responsibilities you will face and what strings are attached.

LESSON #3: THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH A LIFE SCARE THAT HELPS YOU REFOCUS YOUR GOALS AND THE BIG PICTURE-- Our assassin may turn paranoid, untrusting, and a little neurotic after his close call that opens the movie, but he still seeks outlets and changes his ways after almost losing it all.  There's nothing wrong with that, even for a contract killer.  They too need forms of companionship and a reevaluation of what's important.  To us non-killers, whether it's changing your driving habits after a car accident or a medical health scare, etc., life is precious and sometimes people don't stop to see that until it's almost taken away from them.