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film review: The American

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
September 1, 2010 10:20 AM
30 Comments
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My admiration for George Clooney is boundless. He has taken his clout as a box-office star and used it to make films he wants to make, including Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, fully aware that most of his Oceans 11 fans may not care for that kind of picture. I’m sure he wishes more people would come to see Michael Clayton, or even Up in the Air, but I salute him for not pandering to the lowest common denominator as long as he can.

His latest starring vehicle, The American, has only his name to sell it, and that should be enough. But the trailers and TV spots that try to position this as an action-thriller are deliberately—

—deceptive. In fact, it’s a slowly-paced, European-style mood piece, short on dialogue and action and long on atmosphere. I liked it a lot.
One might not expect Dutch director Anton Corbijn, the man behind so many high-profile music videos for U2, Metallica, and Depeche Mode, to be the ideal person to pilot this contemplative film, but he’s done a fine job, working from a thoughtful screenplay by Rowan Joffe (who makes his directorial debut this year with a remake of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock).

Clooney plays a specialist in the world of hit-men who finds he has nowhere to hide when he wants some down-time. His stone-faced boss, or liaison, in Rome sends him to a quiet Italian village with instructions to lay low, but as an American he doesn’t exactly blend in, and before long has developed relationships with a talkative priest and a beautiful prostitute (played by the stunning, frequently naked Violante Placido).

Corbijn periodically cuts to wide shots of the mountainside village or overhead views of Clooney’s car silhouetted against a vast landscape, as if to emphasize his isolation. As a man who deals in death he must always be on his guard; if he tries to lead a normal life, even for an afternoon, he is putting himself and the people around him at risk.

The American is a thoughtful, intelligent film, a good showcase for Clooney, and an eye-opening introduction to Violante Placido. If the mass moviegoing public prefers something more routine or formulaic, it’s their loss.

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30 Comments

  • Steven Howie | December 4, 2011 10:38 AMReply

    After seeing The American, i thought it was a well done film, plenty of suspense, didn't know how it was going to play out till the very end. I initially thought that when he went back into briefcase with the gun he was going to change the sight so it was a little off and when the girl assassain was going to pull trigger it would hit his girlfriend and end with the cliche that as he's found love it will be taken away from him, kind of the nature of the job e.g always a loner. It wasn't till after the film that it made sense he rigged the sight to backfire as it was non sensical that his boss killed the assassain. As for butterfly theme, basically it symbolises his desire to escape his current life, as a caterpiller forms a coccoon and changes into something different, this is shown at the end as he drives down final track camera picks up larvae on branch, then you see butterfly floating above car.

  • Anne | January 10, 2011 1:57 AMReply

    Ty, You have a point about the amoral depravity involved in this film. However, I am intrigued when morally twisted characters demonstrate a shred of humanity. Where does that come from?

  • Hurling Dervish | December 6, 2013 12:36 PM

    I think the amoral depravity - and Mr. Butterfly's yearning to escape from it - are key to the movie. At the beginning, we meet Mr. Butterfly, clearly relaxed and in love in Sweden. Then the assassins come and his survival instinct kicks in, and he kills her cold-bloodedly. His guilt hangs with him. He tells his Liason about it and gets little sympathy, other than that he's getting soft and should avoid relationships in the future.

    The priest and the hooker coax him toward the moral life. Meanwhile, his Liason connects him with a woman asassin and a new gun project. When he finishes - knowing the bloody effect his work will have - you can read the disgust on his face as he walks with the assasin into the field to test the rifle. You can see him wrestle with the idea of killing her out of repulsion for her line of work. But he is not there yet.

    He goes back to work and meanwhile gets closer and closer to the hooker and growing respect for the priest. Just as he finishes his work, he has a change of heart. He rigs his rifle to blow up in the shooter's face. He tells Liason it's his last job, and Liason gives the order to take him out. No one is to live outside the amoral life.

    And so when the shooter falls to earth, mortally wounded, Mr. Butterfly is unsurprised that his work was to be used on him. Now that he has chosen to live a good life, he has lost his edge, just as Liason had predicted. When the time comes, his edge is no longer there to protect him.

  • Hurling Dervish | December 6, 2013 12:36 PM

    I think the amoral depravity - and Mr. Butterfly's yearning to escape from it - are key to the movie. At the beginning, we meet Mr. Butterfly, clearly relaxed and in love in Sweden. Then the assassins come and his survival instinct kicks in, and he kills her cold-bloodedly. His guilt hangs with him. He tells his Liason about it and gets little sympathy, other than that he's getting soft and should avoid relationships in the future.

    The priest and the hooker coax him toward the moral life. Meanwhile, his Liason connects him with a woman asassin and a new gun project. When he finishes - knowing the bloody effect his work will have - you can read the disgust on his face as he walks with the assasin into the field to test the rifle. You can see him wrestle with the idea of killing her out of repulsion for her line of work. But he is not there yet.

    He goes back to work and meanwhile gets closer and closer to the hooker and growing respect for the priest. Just as he finishes his work, he has a change of heart. He rigs his rifle to blow up in the shooter's face. He tells Liason it's his last job, and Liason gives the order to take him out. No one is to live outside the amoral life.

    And so when the shooter falls to earth, mortally wounded, Mr. Butterfly is unsurprised that his work was to be used on him. Now that he has chosen to live a good life, he has lost his edge, just as Liason had predicted. When the time comes, his edge is no longer there to protect him.

  • Hurling Dervish | December 6, 2013 12:36 PM

    I think the amoral depravity - and Mr. Butterfly's yearning to escape from it - are key to the movie. At the beginning, we meet Mr. Butterfly, clearly relaxed and in love in Sweden. Then the assassins come and his survival instinct kicks in, and he kills her cold-bloodedly. His guilt hangs with him. He tells his Liason about it and gets little sympathy, other than that he's getting soft and should avoid relationships in the future.

    The priest and the hooker coax him toward the moral life. Meanwhile, his Liason connects him with a woman asassin and a new gun project. When he finishes - knowing the bloody effect his work will have - you can read the disgust on his face as he walks with the assasin into the field to test the rifle. You can see him wrestle with the idea of killing her out of repulsion for her line of work. But he is not there yet.

    He goes back to work and meanwhile gets closer and closer to the hooker and growing respect for the priest. Just as he finishes his work, he has a change of heart. He rigs his rifle to blow up in the shooter's face. He tells Liason it's his last job, and Liason gives the order to take him out. No one is to live outside the amoral life.

    And so when the shooter falls to earth, mortally wounded, Mr. Butterfly is unsurprised that his work was to be used on him. Now that he has chosen to live a good life, he has lost his edge, just as Liason had predicted. When the time comes, his edge is no longer there to protect him.

  • Ty Right | January 5, 2011 3:45 AMReply

    he murders his young and innocent lover to cover his own tracks. Even Mafia hit men have more humanity. She was human, as was the priest and the hooker. All 3 assassins are pathological monsters, of seriously limited humanity,walking psychopaths, preying on real humans, and each other, but they are little more than terminators. Their emotional indifference to murder, makes even many real sociopaths and psychopaths seem more human. Anyone with an ounce of soul just waits in hope while these 3 are eliminated. And we are supposed to admire this amoral depravity. ...

  • Anne | December 30, 2010 7:42 AMReply

    THE AMERCIAN is a beautifully photographed, spare, and, for me, a very intellectually and emotionally engaging film. As for the ending, remember that "Jack" worked on the rifle again before delivering it to the woman. He knew something was up; he re-set the rifle so that it would backfire when the woman tried to kill him. I cannot take credit for understanding this; my husband made the observation. I want to see it again myself.

  • Dex | October 24, 2010 11:50 AMReply

    The film is a work of art. The screenplay is much better than your initial thought. Great work in every level.

    And of course I know American people (the majority) won't like it. This film is somehow 'condemned' to be bad, in a conventional way.

  • MGN001 | October 1, 2010 5:04 AMReply

    I thought the movie was a bit like an episode of Golgo 13. Except, Golgo 13 would never screw around taking jobs from one man.

  • Dermot | September 17, 2010 9:09 AMReply

    Excellent movie, really worth seeing, but certainly not an action thriller in the conventional sense. Very slow moving, but still maintaining the tension. Visually really good. Not everything is explained - a lot is left open .

  • AH | September 12, 2010 10:00 AMReply

    Very mixed reviews on this view from viewers. I actually really enjoyed the movie. Clooney was excellent, and the cinematography was perfection, each scene building on to the climax of the movie. Only, I just could not figure out the last few scenes of the movie. Still confused as to who shot who from the rooftop and why. Can someone fill me in.

  • Dave | September 10, 2010 1:59 AMReply

    An incredibly boring movie,one of the worst I've seen in years. After leaving the theater I made a mental note to pay more attention to what the movie goers have to say about a movie instead of the film critics. When a critic describes a movie as being "thoughtful and intelligent", beware! If Clooney continues making movies like this, no one will want to see anything he's involved in.

  • jman | September 8, 2010 1:47 AMReply

    It appeared the rifle sight was booby-trapped

  • gayle | September 7, 2010 7:42 AMReply

    Please tell me who kills the girl assassin in the end?

  • jman | September 7, 2010 4:51 AMReply

    Can't believe all the neg reviews, especially the "no character development" thing. Sounds like alot of you can't get anything out of the meticulous nature of Mr.Butterfly. It's sounds like when Judge Judy tries to understand the most basic mechanical issue.....she can't. She's a "social scientist" that paints in broad strokes about things she doesn't know that she doesn't know. Anyway, really good movie.

  • WTB | September 7, 2010 2:25 AMReply

    I just saw The American. Probably one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The American is awful. Nonsensical, stupid and vapid.

  • Brent | September 6, 2010 9:54 AMReply

    About the non-critical thinking...

    One of the things that I liked about the film was that it didn't spell things out for you, but allowed enough details (i.e. subtle reaction shots) to allow audience members to form their own opinions.

    (SPOILERS)
    As for why Clooney's boss doesn't let the "girl assassin kill him", I think that the plot to kill Clooney wasn't one that involved the boss or the assassin in the beginning. The boss seemed to react noticeably when Clooney indicated that it would be his last job; as the boss could get no further benefit from him better to eliminate him to close off one one avenue of prosecution/revenge/extortion. I think that the rifle was made for another job, but the assassin decided to use it on Clooney as she already had it. Just my interpretation.

    As for the butterfly tatoo, it's in the interest of Clooney's character to remain anonymous. But the fact that he has a very personal tatoo (relating to his hobby) shows that he can't give himself completely over to his criminal life, indicating that he's exactly the kind of person who would need to retire at some point. Plus the need for the companionship of another human being...as for his other tatoo, I'm assuming that it was a reference to a miliatry unit where he learned his craft. Any takers on what it was?

    All in all I enjoyed it tremendously, but I had zero knowledge of the film before I went in other than a friend's recommendation. Luckily he had told me that it was basically an art house film/mood piece, or else I could see myself being disappointed in it. I do feel bad for audience members who went in under false (advertising) pretenses.

  • Mark | September 6, 2010 2:25 AMReply

    Very few comments from bloggers on the logic of this film - very strange. I enjoyed it because I generally think of action-adventure as the most idiotic and boring of all Hollywood productions. This film took a different approach but ended up very flawed. Leonard and Roger Ebert, were you lulled into non-critical thinking on this one? Why doesn't Clooney's boss let the girl assassin kill him? He ends up doing the job himself - makes no sense at all. And Roger, what's with "Mr. Butterfly.?" Clooney has a butterfly tattooed on his back for god's sake. Where are the police in all this? Why doesn't the girl assassin kill him upon their first meeting? Doesn't add up at all. Completely disappointing ending. My wife said, "Did we miss something? Should we see it again?" I almost shouted, "NO!"

  • Ricky | September 5, 2010 12:21 PMReply

    An excellent, quite, thoughtful, spy thriller. Stunning cinematography and beautiful Italian locations. Slow paced but never slow. The film takes it's time telling it's story with calmness and clarity yet never forgetting to ratchet up the tension and suspense. The film has everything you could possible want from a spy movie but it also gives you time to think about it. The American may be low key but it never strikes a sour note.

    Highly recommend for fans of the genre.

  • Lisa B. | September 5, 2010 4:57 AMReply

    Noboday loves Clooney more than I do, so when this came out I dragged my husband out on a date (he hates going to the movies). It was so disappointing on so many levels. Poor character building (none), completely unrealistic. Why are there no one ever in the streets, where are all the police when bullets are flying. We kept waiting for more, but were disppointed at the ending. Everyone in the theatre around us were commenting negatively at the end. My husband gives it a 3 out of 10, which is very liberal. Sorry George, I still love you and you look great in those shirtless scenes, but with your clout you can get your hands on better scripts.

    Parents, don't waste your money on a babysitter for date night with this one. You're better off to open up a bottle of wine and watch reruns of Sex & the City!

  • Sherri | September 5, 2010 1:37 AMReply

    I saw this movie last night with my husband, a long overdue night out, and we thought it was a big waste of our time. I love George but you never know what he is going to do. He has some terrific films out there and some films that SUCK. This film will go under movies that SUCKED!!! I would not recommend anyone pay money to see this movie. Sorry George, I am still a fan of yours.

  • OCMoviegoer | September 4, 2010 11:46 AMReply

    As my wife commented after the movie, "I don't mind guns or action, but what's missing in most of these films is 'why?'" Visually the film is beautiful, if slow paced, but the characters have no history, no motivation, no rationale for acting the way they do. It's a stock story and Clooney looks magnificent, but there's no depth to any of it. For some reason the Jason Bourne films make more sense and have a certain humanity to them. Why Clooney picks such an shallow script when he could really get his teeth into something is beyond my comprehension. Maybe he's good-looking but shallow?

  • Alan | September 4, 2010 7:28 AMReply

    One of the most beautiful films ever, but deceptively so. I was almost as tense as the protagonist, completely engrossed. I know the majority of Americans, like the absurd teenie above, won't understand it but it's about life's meaning.

  • Kim | September 4, 2010 7:16 AMReply

    I mean, literally this was the worst movie I've ever seen. EVER. And I've seen hundreds... A man next to me fell asleep - snoring - and the audience of 100+ collectively booed when the movie was (finally) over. An absolute disaster and completely predictable. Terrible.

  • Jason | September 4, 2010 6:16 AMReply

    I think this is an example of how miss-leading promotion can actually hurt a film. People go in expecting an action-thriller and end up getting a slower-paced adult drama/thriller of course they're going to be pissed-off! It's even sadder that the audience that this film deserves are being put-off by the action-heavy promotions. My art-house film friends would love this movie but don't want to see another Bourne-clone.

  • Don | September 4, 2010 5:05 AMReply

    Saw it yesterday and agree with Leonard and DW. Clooney is just magnificent, and is in every scene of the movie. Corbijn uses his photography background to great effect, particularly in the early Swedish scenes and in the mountain villages in Italy. Several people in the theater last night were displeased with the movie's slow pace and the surprising and abrupt ending, but for me this is the movie of the year so far. Cloony deserves an oscar nomination but probably won't get it because of the film's R rating (violence and that very fine brothel scene). Too bad!

  • JAN | September 3, 2010 7:23 AMReply

    Sadly, the only good thing about this film is George in a torrid love scene- the rest is an old formula re-make. Better to rent it or skip this one....

  • DW | September 3, 2010 5:10 AMReply

    Saw this last night with my wife. I give it five stars. Brilliant direction, incredible scenery of Italy, Clooney's acting is excellent. After a shocking opening scene that sets the mood for the entire film, it develops slowly, but methodically, building tension frame by frame as we watch an assasin's agonizing moments of isolation preparing for his next, and ultimately, last hit. Seeking companionship but ever alert to the consequences of his past killing, Clooney is brooding, secretive, plotting, a lethal cold blooded killer. But things change, and he wants out. The ending of the movie is just as shocking as the beginning. Go see it now while it is under the radar.

  • Joe | September 2, 2010 5:49 AMReply

    This movie is getting a ton of mixed reviews which has made me hesitant about seeing this movie but your reviews have never pointed me in a wrong direction so I think I will have to go and see this.

  • Jason | September 1, 2010 12:18 PMReply

    Glad to know it's more a slow-paced intelligent thriller (like the terrific novel it's based on!) than another Bourne-like film. Can't wait to see this!

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