Nov 5, 2010

Movie Review: The American (2010)

It’s amazing how many elements The American (based on the book A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth) shares in common with the 1969 James Coburn movie Hard Contract. Both are slow-paced, existential assassin movies that generally eschew action in favor of philosophy and beautiful scenery. Both star iconoclastic leading men with famous smiles, liberal attitudes and a taste for quirkier roles. Both feature washed-up assassins (and what other variety of movie assassins are there?) who seek their sexual gratification from prostitutes in order to avoid forming any lasting connections, and who go off to Italy, meet a priest and a girl and discuss good and evil with the former and fall in love with the latter and eventually need to protect either or both from their assassin bosses, who naturally come after them in the end. That’s a remarkable set of similarities between the two films, but the same elements ultimately add up to entirely different wholes. Both obviously showcase the emptiness of a life dedicated to death and champion the importance of human connection, but then what assassin movie doesn’t? (The Matador still does that the best.) But the plots of the two films (such as The American has one, anyway) are different, as are their overall tones. The American doesn’t really break new ground in the plaintive assassin genre, but director Anton Corbijn still manages to tell the story as if it’s fresh, and he’s aided immeasurably by good performances, strikingly gorgeous locations and equally attractive stars.

The bodies of both George Clooney (in fantastic shape even at 49) and the breathtaking Violante Placido as Clara, the prostitute he falls in love with, are on full display (including in the steamiest love scene I’ve seen all year), fetishized as much as the breathtaking Italian countryside. Why all this beauty? I’d hazard that its purpose is to contrast sharply with death and destruction, two things which Clooney’s character (identified only as “Mr. Butterfly” after his peculiar tattoo) has devoted his life to. Like the movie as a whole, that contrast is less profound than Corbijn seems to think it is, but it’s certainly serviceable, especially when executed so capably. Clooney travels from one beautiful location to another (starting in scenic, snowy Scandinavia, always a favorite spy setting of mine) and taints them all with violence. His dark profession infects everyone he comes into contact with, even if it doesn’t mean for it to. After a romantic interlude at an isolated Swedish cabin ends in a bloodbath, it’s no wonder that he wants out of his profession. Exactly who he works for is never made clear: it could be a spy agency or a crime syndicate or a totally apolitical freelance outfit, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the nature of the work, which in the view presented here is the same no matter what the cause.

The American is a movie that leaves you with questions, sure, but not ones that you’re likely to find yourself pondering for days on end, like, say, Mulholland Drive. Instead my reaction was more, “well, it’s okay if the filmmakers didn’t really want to tell me everything. They still made a very pretty movie that I enjoyed watching for two hours, and I’ll take that. But I doubt I’ll really spend too much time poring over what it all means.”

Mr. Butterfly flees to the countryside, makes a few human connections (the aforementioned priest and prostitute) and reluctantly agrees to take on one last assignment. He doesn’t even have to pull the trigger; he simply has to make the weapon and deliver it to a beautiful, deadly young woman who could easily be his replacement in the world he’s trying to turn his back on. Not everything goes as planned (or maybe it does) and eventually his old employer shows up wanting to kill him. Violence ensues. That’s the plot, and that’s pretty much the entire plot. Yet I haven’t spoiled it, because it’s not really possible to spoil. The plot is just things that happen. That’s not what the movie’s about, and it doesn’t even bother to explain most of them. The movie is about the characters and the scenery and the interaction thereof detrimental to both. It’s sort of a tone poem, a meditation on violence sure to disappoint or even infuriate anyone expecting a Bourne-like action movie, for which a prospective viewer could be forgiven given the marketing campaign. Personally, I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t totally buy into The American's delusions of profundity, but I didn’t mind looking at the images it had to show me, either, or weighing the themes it traded in. It delivered all the exotic locations and all the sex and even all the iconography of action (if not the action itself) that I expect from a good spy movie. Like the lead character when customizing a sniper rifle, Corbijn took apart all these pieces and reassembled them into something different, but for me the pieces themselves are reward enough. If you ever find yourself responding more to the visual tropes of a spy movie than to its actual plot, chances are you’ll find something to like in The American. If you demand plot and action (which are totally reasonable demands, by the way), then you may be disappointed.


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