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Movie Review

The American

‘The American’ more simmer than suspense

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 1, 2010

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You can tell “The American’’ is an adult European thriller. Most of the killing is done in sport coats, the rest in an anorak. All of it involves George Clooney. This is a part that requires him to dress characteristically well (his clothes are by Ermenegildo Zegna), but while looking hung-dry rather than dry-cleaned. The movie makes up for his lack of crispness with visual sharpness. But it remains an inexplicable venture, nonetheless. Clooney plays an assassin and artisanal gunsmith, whose latest assignment lands him in Abruzzo, Italy, waiting for parts of weaponry to arrive in the mail. He goes by several names. My favorite is Mister Farfalle, for the butterfly implausibly tattooed below his nape.

The scope of his assignment remains vague. His dispatcher (Johan Leysen) tells him the job is a “custom fit.’’ Clooney seats himself at a cafe and proceeds to have a conversation with the woman at an adjacent table about the specifications of the weapon she’d like. “You want the capacity of a submachine gun,’’ he asks, not un-suggestively, “and the range of a rifle?’’

The fellow Clooney’s playing is a loner. (The screenwriter Rowan Joffe took the film from a 20-year-old Martin Booth novel called “A Very Private Gentleman.’’) Clooney can be ideal on his own. Frequently, though, I doubted that he had enough to do. Watching him mope around Rome at some point, I hoped he’d find scrawled on a wall, “Julia ate here!’’

There are increasingly few people you could watch with pleasure just sit in the cold, fluorescent glow of a diner, as Clooney does here. But the film is trapped between European stillness and the American urge for kinesis. So every time Something Happens (a gunfight, a chase, sex), it does so almost outside what narrative there is. Clooney pops awake from sleep. He works on his gun. He decides, for reasons that seem more like a screenwriter’s than his character’s, to fall in love with the hooker (Violante Placido) he frequents at a bordello. He meets a tubby old priest (Paolo Bonacelli) for dinner and stabs at profundity. Scenes here are over when someone says something portentous, deep, or doomy. For example: “I don’t think God is interested in me, Father.’’

The director, Anton Corbijn, is a visualist in pursuit of sensation. His photography, his music videos, and his previous film (“Control,’’ an immersive drama about Joy Division’s tortured singer, Ian Curtis) are works of mood and texture. They can be oblique and willfully strange. “The American’’ is an attempt at directness. More than once the more immaculate thrillers of John Frankenheimer come to mind. But Corbijn appears to be going for a Western. This is true before the Sergio Leone picture playing on a television is referenced by its maker’s name.

The film is overripe with erotic symbols. Clooney delivers his gun on a picnic blanket and watches as his client (Thekla Reuten) assembles it. The exchange is sexy insofar as it’s a substitute for sex. But the film goes literal, soft, and banal when his hooker lady friend continues to insert herself into his life right up to the French crime-thriller ending.

Given the paucity of serious adult moviemaking that shows up in American megaplexes, it’s almost ungrateful to turn up your nose when one arrives. But this isn’t that serious a movie. The moral straits of the gun and assassin business recede almost instantly. Instead, a kind of fashion instinct takes over. Corbijn likes a gorgeous long shot. He also likes women with luxurious hair and wondrous backsides. Every time Clooney shares a scene with a female, it’s not the prospect of an eruption of intercourse or gunfights you fear. It’s photo shoots.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

THE AMERICAN Directed by: Anton Corbijn

Written by: Rowan Joffe, adapted from Martin Booth’s novel “A Very Private Gentleman’’

Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, and Paolo Bonacelli

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 103 minutes

Rated: R (violence, nudity, sexual content, rather suggestive gun assembly)

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