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The American (2010,USA)

18/07/2011

Director: Anton Corbijn       Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli

There is a well trodden career path into Hollywood where directors start out with music videos or adverts (one of the more notable examples I can think of is David Fincher but I’m pretty sure the mighty Scott Brothers also started out in ads and tv work to name but a few) and a quick look at Corbijn’s filmography reveals he has followed this process himself. Starting out directing videos for the likes of Depeche Mode, U2 and Metallica he made the jump to feature films in 2007 with the excellent Ian Curtis/Joy Division biopic Control, a logical progression given his solid grounding in the music business. Less logical perhaps is where he went next, this 2010 adaptation of Martin Booth’s “A Very Private Gentleman”.

George Clooney plays the American of the title (known by different names to different people, for the sake of clarity I’ll stick with Jack for the duration) a professional killer and specialist gunsmith by trade who has fled to a small, medieval Italian town to lie low after his last safe house was rumbled by people with a serious grudge against him. Enlisted by the enigmatic Mathilde (Reuten) to prepare a rifle for a very particular task his continued survival depends on him keeping himself to himself and not drawing attention to himself in any way. Things threaten to become complicated though when he not only sparks up a friendship with the local priest Father Benedetto (Bonacelli) but also begins to have deepening feelings for the sultry prostitute Clara (the absolutely stunning Placido) with whom he seeks solace from his lonely lifestyle. When his enemies track him down, it soon becomes clear that not everybody he has met can be trusted.

It’s a far cry from Corbijn’s earlier film and probably out of his comfort zone, stepping so far away from the familiar ground of rock bands, concerts and music videos. The Dutchman has handled it beautifully. Focusing very much on trying to give us as intimate a view of Jack’s spartan existence it is a quiet and thoughtful film that makes the violence all the more brutal and affecting when it comes. There is no doubt that we are supposed to like Clooney’s thoughtful, taciturn assassin and we root for him all the way even when he commits acts that are horribly barbaric in the most coldly logical way in order to protect himself. A lot of this is down to Clooney himself, an actor who has proved he can pull off the anti hero thing (From Dusk Till Dawn is a good example) and it is his natural warmth and charisma, partially concealed here behind a veil of pragmatic focus that allow us to still care for Jack even after his more atrocious deeds. This sympathy for his cause is only strengthened by the occasional insight into his humanity afforded with his growing relationship with Clara and his own fleeting nightmares.

Both Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten add some serious class to the proceedings thanks to their performances but also their dazzling beauty and quintessentially European sense of style. Reuten in particular balances her natural sexiness with her character’s professional aloof manner. You get the sense that in another director’s hands the women would have been in danger of being reduced to eye candy and plot devices rather than important characters in their own right. There is also an air of the femme fatale about both of them and a sense that like Eve in the garden of Eden did for Adam, they may hold the key to Jack’s undoing.

There is a welcome vintage vibe to the film, probably a result of the spectacular Italian setting. The medieval town of Castel Del Monte makes for a splendid location, as does the surrounding countryside and it calls to mind the sort of exotic location work you would expect from that oh so famous of assassins James Bond. The tone of the film is less Bond-like though, for me calling to mind early Frederick Forsyth but updated for a post Bourne cinematic audience. Certainly Jack probably has more in common with Forsyth’s Jackal than Fleming’s Bond in terms of sheer talent and professionalism. Although he does carry a Walther PPK.

The action is punchy and exciting and utilised sparingly, which works to the film’s advantage. Clooney is utterly convincing as a highly trained, highly experienced killer. His posture and movement are convincing and he’s in better physical shape than a lot of actors half his age. I’d be interested to know how much training he did prior to shooting to achieve such a well practiced look and feel.

All in all its a solid assassin based thriller that I thoroughly enjoyed. Grey scale morality, great characters and excellent performances backed up by solid action sequences definitely put this in the premier league and it’s distinct European-ness, despite it being an American film, adds a touch of class and distinction that makes it feel a little bit special. Highly recommended.

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