The American – review

Anton Corbijn's new film is an intelligent, beautifully photographed, if intensely self-conscious drama about an assassin's mid-life crisis.

The American – review The movie is pitched at a low key: finely judged, but at times rather exasperatingly thoughtful and muted. It purrs evenly, like the engine of a luxury automobile, with a cool, sleek satisfaction at how stylish it is. That said, it is pretty stylish, and the remote, islanded sense of loneliness and tension is well managed: Frederick Forsyth with a dash of  Graham Greene.

The star is George Clooney, who here withholds from his audience the warm and witty persona he normally projects, and presents us instead with an ice-cold hitman called Jack, whose career has just suffered the most calamitous reversal. At first, like a gnarled and careworn 007, Jack is relaxing in some Swedish log-cabin, nursing a brandy by an open fire in the embrace of a beautiful and unclothed companion. With the approach of mortal danger – for which Jack's peripheral vision is always twitchily alert – he demonstrates warrior reflexes and utter Bondish ruthlessness.

The result is such that Jack makes contact with his hatchet-faced minder Pavel (Johan Leysen), who orders him to go to ground in a certain lovely Italian village, and "lie low" in the traditional manner, while everyone considers their next move. It is here that Jack befriends a shrewd and wily local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and falls in love with a local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido). He is beginning to consider an existence beyond whacking people for a living, but must first complete one last job: designing and building a rifle for a certain hit.

Frederick Forsyth's influence takes over from Ian Fleming with this shift from Sweden to Italy: though the movie is loosely based on Martin Booth's 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman, in which the mysterious stranger was originally an elegant, withdrawn Englishman. There is something very Forsythian about Jack's tough self-reliance and his spartan cell of a room. The stasis of the movie reminded me of the scenes in Forsyth's novel in which the "Jackal" did nothing but lie in his shabby hotel room, staring at the ceiling and chainsmoking until the plan's every last detail was clear in his mind. Clooney's Jack is a man of action with nothing to do, a tough guy who does his pressups and over-arm pullups in a stoic spirit of eternal preparation and his machismo is all channelled into taciturn professionalism.

When Jack has a covert meeting with his preposterously glamorous contact, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), he demands from her details about the gun's design-requirements in that abrupt, monosyllabic way – Range? Weight? Size? – as if talking in a normal way would compromise his super-cool killer status. For some reason, Mathilde changes her hairstyle for every meeting, a precaution which never makes her less conspicuous, and Jack's own elaborate unobtrusiveness is of a strangely ostentatious sort. He arrives in the village almost as if for a 58-page fashion spread in Italian Vogue, and whiles away a great deal of time in cafes, ordering coffees and unfolding Italian newspapers which he glances at with every appearance of interest and comprehension. It creates a weird stillness and self-absorption, which overlays even the periodic scenes of eroticism, violence and menace. Everything is bathed in cinematographer Martin Ruhe's gorgeously realised Italian light, which suspends animation to some degree.

Of course, the idea of the killer or criminal brooding, metaphysically secluded, is nothing new. Recently, Martin McDonagh gave us something similar in his excellent 2008 thriller In Bruges, and Paolo Sorrentino's brilliant 2004 movie The Consequences of Love – which may well have been an influence here – showed a mafia apparatchik living his life in exile in a Swiss resort. But screenwriter Rowan Joffe, who is shortly to unveil his feature directing debut with his adaptation of Brighton Rock, also gives us a film coloured by Greene. Clooney's Jack is someone who is forced, at leisure, to consider his own life, in the company of a priest, who is himself sinful. Perhaps without fully realising it, Jack yearns to be judged and punished, in order to be relieved of   his guilt.

There is never anything uninteresting about this movie, and yet nothing all that exciting or deeply involving either. Perhaps the key is the "cover" Jack chooses for himself: he is supposed to be a photographer. Of course, Anton Corbijn was once a photographer himself, and it could be that his superb eye for a still image – on display in some excellent compositions of Jack brooding in lonely cafes – may have stymied the film's movement. His debut film, Control, the biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, crashed on to the screen with the energy of the rock world he photographed so brilliantly. Now Corbijn is evidently trying to demonstrate a formal artistry which exists independently of all that. And it's successful, up to a point. There is enormous technique. But, oddly for the Italian setting, it is a little cold and flavourless.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian on Thursday 25th November 2010 20.00 Europe/London

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