Do not believe the misleading action-packed trailers; The American is not really a thriller.
Directed by Anton Corbijn, a Dutch photographer justly famous for his music videos, it is a sombre, minimalist, very slow-moving exercise in arty style. Packed with film-buff references, it strains to evoke various alienated, "cool" spy/hitman/gangster films of the late '60s and '70s, ranging from Melville's pretentiously laconic The Samurai with Alain Delon, to paranoid American thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.
Its central character is a taciturn assassin cum gunsmith who goes by the names Jack and Edward and who is played by a newly skinny but impressively flexible George Clooney (there are lots of shots of him working out shirtless). He also sports a large butterfly tattoo on his back.
It is never clear who the dour American works for, only that people are out to kill him, and that he is an experienced professional who prefers not to use a mobile phone. His boss, with whom he has brief conversations by payphone, is a European of some kind. The main people out to kill him are "the Swedes", who, on the evidence of their actions throughout the film, are not particularly competent, even though, according to his boss, Jack has "lost his edge".
For most of the film he is hiding out in a remote Italian village, though like Colin Farrell's gangster in London Boulevard, which also comes out this week, Jack is convinced to carry out one last job before he can leave the hitman's life and start a new one with a beautiful girl.
The job is not an assassination but the customising of a perfect rifle for another assassin, a blue-eyed European brunette (Thekla Reuten), so beautiful and chic that their brief, secretive meetings at train stations and marketplaces make a mockery of discretion.
When he is not working on the gun with impressive dexterity and attention to detail, or morosely sipping coffee in the local café, the unsmiling American encounters cliched characters who undermine the film's pretentions to arty seriousness.
During his regular visits to a brothel in a nearby village, Jack meets Clara, (Violante Placido), a gorgeous hooker with a heart of gold who falls in love with him, stops charging him and asks him out on a date. He is also, despite his unrelenting gloominess, befriended by the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who turns out to be wise and wistful. He says things like: "You're American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present," and: "You cannot doubt the existence of hell. You live in it. It's a place without love."
The film is arguably undone less by its self-consciousness or the improbabilities of Rowan Joffe's screenplay than by its casting.
George Clooney is perhaps the only leading man of this era who possesses old-fashioned moviestar glamour. The Clark Gable of our time, he is even better in comedy than in action and drama. Unfortunately he seems to have a yearning to make political points and to suffer on screen in the manner of late-career Harrison Ford. This has led to failures like The Men Who Stare At Goats, to participation in silly Hollywood agitprop like Syriana and Michael Clayton, and now to The American. Shut-in taciturnity suits him no better than his tight haircut and sideburns. Naturally gregarious, effusive and charming, a role that involves much staring into space does him few favours.
All that said, The American has its pleasures despite is portentousness. Most of the film takes place in and around the spectacular walled village of Castel del Monte in the Abruzzo region, and the local chamber of commerce could hardly have asked for a better advertisement. (Indeed, there are many rather long sequences of the hero driving on the mountain roads that look, sound and feel just like car commercials.)
Visually, The American is a very good-looking film - one perfectly framed image follows another. But it lacks conviction, as if Corbijn - "a craftsman rather than an artist" to use the priest's characterisation of Jack, is somehow compelled to make expert pastiche instead of something genuinely felt and enjoyed.