Friday, February 11, 2011

Proud to be The American

I can't say I've been a fan of George Clooney for very long. I don't think I've ever seen an episode of E.R. with him. I tried watching Out of Sight years ago and gave up on it. I haven't seen The Perfect Storm, O Brother Where art Thou, Three Kings or Syriana. I haven't watched seen any of the Oceans films, that's how little of his career I've actually witnessed. But I have liked the little bit I've been privy to. He was great in his first big Hollywood film, From Dusk till Dawn. He was a big part of why the live telecast Fail Safe was so enjoyable. I loved his roles in the great films The Thin Red Line and Good Night, and Good Luck. And Up in the Air was an amazing movie for which he might have won an Oscar had he not been up against Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth at the time. There can be little doubt as to his talents as an actor, especially with his particular mix of acting talent, charm and sex appeal, so I'm happy to start paying attention to the man's career with 2010's The American, his indie thriller set in the mountains of beautiful Italy. The film is based on Martin Booth's book A Very Private Gentleman, originally released back in 1990.

Not exactly in a vacationing mood, is he?
In The American, George Clooney plays Jack, a hit-man recently chased out of hiding in Sweden by men seeking to take him out of the picture. His respite ruined, Jack returns to Rome, where his handler sends him into hiding in rural Italy, the literal middle of nowhere. There, he calls himself Edward and befriends both a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a prostitute (Violante Placido). Jack, paranoid of the world around of him and trying to get out of the game, is tasked with one more job before he can escape forever.

Focus on the pretty one... oh, right.
The film appears on the surface to be a normal spy thriller, but as you watch it somehow doesn't feel like one. Indeed, when I was watching the special features on the film's DVD, it's stated by director Anton Corbijn that it is in fact a modernized western, which actually makes a lot of sense. Rural Italy is not unlike the old west in its wide open spaces, untapped beauty and the almost ghost-town atmosphere of the villages outside of tourist season. Jack's journey for redemption and an escape from his past are popular themes in westerns, and even his friendship with the priest and prostitute are for needs both spiritual and physical that he doesn't get from his lonesome, outlaw life. When you begin to think of the film in this way as a current-day western instead of just another spy movie, you can appreciate it's intricacies so much more than you might normally. Corbijn may be relatively new to directing, but uses his experience as a professional photographer to effect that far outpaces the tenets of his job. Every shot is perfect - notice I don't say beautiful, as sometimes the perfect shot needs to be ugly - and he obviously put a lot of thought into every single scene before committing it to film.

Oh, boys and their toys!
You could be justified in saying that The American starts George Cloony "and a bunch of European actors you don't know" but the film is at least partially successful due to the talents of that support cast. Johan Leysen plays Pavel, Jack's mysterious handler. While Jack seems to show remorse for some of his actions, it's obvious from Leysen's performance Pavel has little to no compassion in his system, and seems to be annoyed at Jack's apparent loss of edge. Paolo Bonacelli has been acting in film since 1964, but you likely haven't seen him unless you happen to frequent Italian cinema. His role of Father Benedetto tries to get Jack to confess his sins and repent, seeing through the disguise since he himself knows about the sins of man. Bonacelli's performance suffers slightly from having to speak mostly English throughout the film, but otherwise is well cast here. Another assassin is played by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten, who you might have seen before; she was the female assassin Sayid had an affair with in the fourth season Lost episode "The Economist." Here the beautiful Reuten plays another tough woman, obviously a young up-and-comer in the death-dealing trade. She does a great job not letting the audience too far in, keeping her secrets and still seeming open and honest compared to the insular Jack. The gorgeous Violante Placido seems young enough that she wouldn't have a lot of acting experience, but the Italian actress and singer actually has film history in spades and puts it to great effect here. As Clara, the "prostitute with a heart of gold" might seem like a trite role at this point, but she pulls it off nicely and her work with Clooney is pretty damn good. One particular scene is a startlingly strong sex scene in which she sets the mood for the entire scene with the camera almost exclusively focused on her. She's a charming, talented actress and manages to be the heart of the film. Finally we get to Clooney, who actually puts on a restrained face as the assassin whose history seems to be jumping back to bite him after so many years. Clooney plays the grim, emotionless hit-man when he needs to, but his legendary motormouth is conspicuously absent and the emotion on his face throughout makes for one of his more unique roles. It might not be his best performance, but being so different from his previous roles it's certainly one that commands attention.

Doug Ross's Doctors without Borders run didn't work as planned
The film is not without its faults. While much of the film takes place in one Italian town of Castel del Monte, Jack seems to travel to other towns to broker business. It's not clear when he's in a particular town or why at any given time, however. This is a small and mainly unimportant pacing problem. Also a bit off is the introduction of Clara, whose intro is shoved into an interceding five second scene included solely to plug her into the story. Most against the film, however, is it's predictability. I figured out in the first five minutes what the film's big twist would be, and while The American was still an interesting film to watch, the weight of knowing what was coming was too much a distraction to fully appreciate. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, with The American's expert camera work and great cast getting most of my positive attention. It was also great to see Italy's beauty on film, just begging to be visited. It might not be the best Clooney film out there, but its certainly one you won't regret seeing on the way to watching his bigger, better fare.

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