Born in the USA
by Thomas Delapa
George Clooney isn’t just a bona fide movie star. He may be the last American matinee idol. In a time when most U.S. leading men are either fading (Jack Nicholson), aging (Al Pacino), strange (Mel Gibson), selective (Tom Hanks) or forever adolescent (Tom Cruise), Clooney still shines with the kind of looks and charisma that hark back to old Hollywood.
But King George is also reluctant movie royalty. Apart from his lucrative roles in the leaky Ocean’s Eleven franchise, he prefers to swim upstream in risky, offbeat and independent films. For a heartthrob, he’s a wallflower when it comes to old-school romance. To this critic, there’s no question his most likable performance was as a conniving convict in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Likable is likely the last word you’d use to describe Clooney’s role in The American, a stark, Europeanized thriller that’s as far from Hollywood as Tuscany is from Tuscaloosa. Just to get our attention that this isn’t your father’s George Clooney, in the first scene he shoots a woman in the back.
In a role that only the NRA could love, Clooney’s Jack is an itinerant underground arms dealer who specializes in custom-built guns. He works alone, travels alone and—mostly—sleeps alone. His only contact is a chilly superior (Johan Leysen) who warns him to, above all, “don’t make any friends.” Ambushed in Sweden, Jack hightails it to Italy, where he goes on the lam in the harsh (and earthquake-prone) mountainous region of Abruzzi.
If Clooney’s vehicle is of a peculiar anti-commercial caliber, it also isn’t especially original. It’s loaded with homages that recoil with imagery from cinema’s minimalist past, from Fred Zinnemann’s fine The Day of the Jackal to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s famed existentialist dramas, such as 1975’s The Passenger.
In their adaptation of Martin Booth’s 1990 novel (A Very Private Gentleman), director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe seem to want to ascend to the lofty peaks of allegory. Jack isn’t simply an American, but the American–in the oft-quoted words of D.H. Lawrence, “hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” Clooney is all those things, and less. We know nothing about him, other than he has a butterfly tattoo on his back, is bravura in bed, and is equally adept breaking a man’s neck with James Bondian license-to-kill authority.
For the other dramatic details, we’re supposed to read between the lines. The trouble is, those lines are as meandering as the curves on the prostitute that Jack shacks up with in the small town. For all the chaste anti-commercialism that the movie shoots for, Clara (Violante Placido) is the sort of happy Italian hooker that only Hollywood could dream of: sweet, young, voluptuous and ripe for the taking.
In Jack’s daytime hours, he gets busy filling a custom rifle order for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), an alluring assassin and master of disguise who looks like she belongs on Goldfinger’s payroll. As Jack works methodically to assemble the gun and its special silencer in secret, Corbijn packs these scenes with minimalist pop, crafting a statement on the torrid longstanding love affair between firearms and the man.
Elsewhere, Corbijn and his cinematographer put Jack in the crosshairs, positioning him alone in composed long shots that underline his isolation, if not desolation. Despite the warning, Jack tentatively befriends a wise local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who refutes Jack’s naive Americanized notion that he can “escape history.”
If Jack is aimed to be the violent, allegorically ugly, American, neither can Clooney escape his fateful inability to express his character through an arsenal of long silences, blank stares and airless ennui. I’ll grant that Corbijn’s nifty twist finale finds its target, but otherwise The American is more miss than hit.
Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 9/8/10