Why so many movies this year about aging secret agents? Probably to accommodate all the aging lead actors. George Clooney gets his shot in this austere thriller, and though he explores a marginally wider range of emotions than Sylvester Stallone does in The Expendables — they include glowering, mental anguish, and more glowering — he definitely isn't having as much fun as Bruce Willis and company do in the upcoming Red.
On the plus side for both Clooney and his viewers, he gets to engage his angst in the picturesque setting of Abruzzo, Italy. And he doesn't have to deal with the pseudo-profundities of the film's source, Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman. Had director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe opted to include the book's first-person fulminations as a voiceover narrative, this could have been as deadly as Rob Reiner's Flipped.
|The American | Directed by Anton Corbijn | Written by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth | with George Clooney, Violante Placido, Irina Björklund, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, and Johan Leysen | Focus Features | 105 minutes|
That's just one of several smart decisions the filmmakers have made to render this story more cinematic. But in paring down an overwritten novel, they've come up with an underwritten movie, though they've added a couple of sinister twists of their own to fill it out. What's left is a starkly familiar tale of a hired gun, no longer young, fleeing enemies, tempted by love, lured into the inevitable last job.
Clooney plays Jack, a/k/a Edward, who after a botched sojourn in snowy Sweden has headed south to regroup. His cadaverous contact, Pavel (Johan Leysen), has set him up in Castel del Monte, an off-the-beaten-path mountain town where he's to stay till things can be sorted out with "the Swedes," whoever they are. This film is so generic that no one, not even I, will be able to read a political subtext into it.
To pass the time, Jack works on a job for the striking, auburn-haired Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), assembling a rifle to her specifications. He not only shoots guns — he builds them, despite his ironic catch phrase that he's "not good with machines."
Actually, Jack is not much good with anything else. He limits his social contacts to the occasional prostitute. But maybe, as Pavel suggests, he's losing his edge, because he's developed a warm spot for the local whore with a heart of gold, Clara (Violante Placido), who bears an unnerving resemblance to the lethal Mathilde. And he can't help bumping into the local padre, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who offers him Armagnac and a friendly opportunity to confess his sins.
Corbijn reveals his filmmaking intelligence throughout. There's the taut, subtle opening sequence; there are small touches like the way he cuts from Father Benedetto driving by in a little truck with cute lambs in the back to a steaming bowl of stew. Yes, all are sacrificial lambs in this movie, or maybe errant sinners fleeing the raptor eye of fate, or perhaps butterflies newly emerged from a chrysalis. Sometimes Corbijn's metaphors get a little out of control.
There are canny touches in the casting, as well — back in 1975, Paolo Bonacelli played the diabolical Duke in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò. Movie allusions ultimately do Corbijn in, however, as he breaks the unwritten rule never to show a scene from a movie that's better than yours. This one's from Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in the West. Now that's how you turn genre into genius.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this review incorrectly referrerd to the title of Sergio Leone's film as "Once upon a Time in America."