In the opening scenes of “The American,” George Clooney is in the middle of a snowy vacation when he's abruptly interrupted by a man with a sniper rifle. We learn in quick succession that Clooney's character is himself a highly trained and deadly killer, in the end more deadly than his pursuers. He must do what he must do, but what he must do leaves him shaken for the rest of the film. Now he wants out, but only after one last job. It's a task not always easy for an elite killer for hire to accomplish, just one audiences might have seen a time or two before sitting through “The American.”
In movies like this, characters like Clooney's, who's as shrewd as they come, can get the drop on anyone, anywhere, but for some reason they have a difficult time trying to get away when they want to vacation or retire. Maybe it's because, if the sheer numbers of Hollywood movies about these kinds of people are an indication, there's so many others just like them out there, ready to hunt each other down. “The American” is essentially about the weariness of one. What about our weariness of them?
This movie is a high-minded meditation on the genre, deliberate, melancholy and unfortunately dull in too many stretches. This American is not the cartoon kind of superhero Angelina Jolie played in the recent “Salt,” but more of a throwback to movie characters from a pre-Bourne era, a fact readily apparent from the movie's poster art, which owes as much to 1960s graphical style as it does contemporary action cinema. The American is a mysterious, quiet man, well tailored and dedicated to a certain number of crunches and pull-ups every morning. He builds a special gun late in the night and waits for his contacts while getting it on with attractive local women. He also broods a lot.
Clooney and the Italian countryside are agreeable players in a story that seems bent on delivering high style over plain storytelling. The director, Anton Corbijn, is an established rock photographer. He's produced a lot of famous portraits of famous people, but probably his most well known is the album cover of U2's “The Joshua Tree,” which, like the film at hand, is about foreigners staring off into the distance on arid highlands. His previous entry was “Control,” an account of the rise and untimely demise of the rock band Joy Division. As a collection of images, “The American” is the visual equivalent of rock lyrics: sexy, cool and primitively catchy but, if looked at too closely, somewhat insubstantial and occasionally ridiculous.
Corbijn doesn't do himself any favors by going after big metaphors with obvious symbols. That kind of thing might work for Esquire magazine, but in an intellectual thriller, strenuous visual cues only serve to bog down the proceedings. There's an uncomfortable amount of time spent watching Clooney peer out of bed and breakfast windows with binoculars, equating his character with rare insect species and following him on long drives across windswept vistas. Even a bird of prey is trotted out to make the point.
Everyone and everything is ripe for a page in a coffee-table book. Clooney meets a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) — of course — whose bulbous features are matched only by his basso voice, always elucidating the American's misgivings and regrets in heavily-accented English. The women in Clooney's life all look like the kind of cover girls Corbijn would be apt to assemble for an Elle magazine spread, so similar you might wind up confusing the former girlfriend (Irina BjArklund) with the fellow assassin (Thekla Reuten) with the prostitute (Violante Placido). Perhaps Clooney's paranoid American is starting to, as well, but that doesn't make runway models popping up in rural countryside any more plausible.
There's something undeniably attractive about fantasies like this that must account for their proliferation. Maybe it's the hunter-versus-prey scenario that strikes so deeply. Or it could simply be the idea of freelancing for big envelopes of cash in exotic locations as gorgeous models fall into your lap. Then you start to think, “Hey, what if you just took the sniper rifle away and replaced it with a telephoto lens?” No, you'd rather have the movie's deadly Swedes after you than be a freelance photographer. (R) 95 min.