Monday, 22 November 2010

CINECITY: 'The American' review:

According to David Thompson all that stands in the way of George Clooney becoming a modern day Carey Grant is his smugness. Well, I don't think Cary Grant and George Clooney are very similar performers anyway, but that aside I don't really understand the oft-levelled accusation of smugness. I suppose what many people are referring to is his screen persona defining role in Steven Soderbergh's 'Ocean's 11' re-make and its two sequels. In those films Clooney is stylish, cool and in control - the definition of a suave so-called "silver fox" - with every reason to be smug. Whilst watching Clooney's latest film, Anton Corbijn's low-key spy thriller 'The American', it was presumably this view of the actor's image that led a colleague to lean over and whisper that they felt the film to be "one prolonged Clooney wink". I think I know what she meant.

Throughout his recent career, Clooney has demonstrated a knowing tendency to play counter to his star persona, which he does with varying degrees of subtlety and success. Often he will play a broad buffoon, as in such films as 'Burn After Reading' and 'The Men Who Stare at Goats'. At other times he will "go normal", as in 'Syriana' where he put on weight and sported an unkempt beard. But at his best he subverts his image without running away from it anything like as obviously. For instance in last year's 'Up in the Air' he would seem to be playing exactly the same 'Ocean's 11' huckster, only (thanks to director Jason Reitman's trademark cynicism) we see a character who is ultimately left stranded in a facsimile of a life: vacuous and unfulfilled beneath a suave and in control facade. It's like watching Danny Ocean's midlife crisis.

In 'The American' Clooney is again playing up to and against type. Put simply: 'The American' is like 'Up in the Air' with added sex and violence - and without jokes. As Jack, an ageing hitman, Clooney is again faced with the realisation that his lifestyle hasn't allowed him to make any meaningful connections with friends and lovers. He is again handsome and cool - seemingly the creation of another male wish fulfillment fantasy - yet he is an empty vessel. The relationships he does have are fleeting and built on lies (for instance false identities) and, as we learn in the film's brilliantly executed and deathly cold opening sequence, these encounters can also go very wrong. Here Clooney lives the life of James Bond: he beds glamorous women; drives sports cars around beautiful Italian towns; and wears a pistol inside his dinner suit. But he doesn't enjoy it. In fact, quite unlike Bond (well, at least old school Bond), Clooney spends most of the film moping around looking quite depressed. Soon he resolves to quit the hitman racket after undertaking that "one last job" demanded by movie convention. Oh, and along the way things are made more difficult by a gang of Swedish hitmen who are bent on killing him.

For all intents and purposes, 'The American' is a thriller without many thrills. Most of the time it is ironically a very European exercise in introspective slow cinema. We watch long silent takes in which Jack makes a rifle (without enjoying it), or takes a country drive (without enjoying it). Like the Polish thriller 'Essential Killing', Anton Corbijn's follow-up to 'Control' is scant on action and more interested in character study. Only, whilst it is attractively shot and nicely lit (if formally unspectacular), it is ultimately lacking in any real feeling or, dare I say, point. Clooney is left to carry the film and inject into it some life, but unfortunately for the star that proves to be a thankless task. He has those big, sad eyes worked out to a fine art, but ultimately the film feels somehow hollow and fairly dull.

Corbijn and his star have seemingly set out to deconstruct and critique the spy genre, though in fact they only really end up repeating its cliches in a more boring contect without delivering anything especially thoughtful or philosophical. From the trite theme of the hitman's relationship with a local priest, to the prolonged shots of Violante Placido's exposed breasts, 'The American' is simply a very earnest telling of a familiar story. It is especially during scenes of sexuality that the film is at its most disappointingly conventional as we are presented with females as sex objects whilst Clooney remains clothed (save for one brief shot of his rear) and sometimes even disappears off camera, leaving us to leer at a beautiful topless Italian lady. Even 'Casino Royale' employed a Laura Mulvey defying female gaze as Daniel Craig emerged from the sea with his shimmering torso. Yet 'The American' is rooted firmly in the misogyny of the cinematic past.

Perhaps that is the point. After all the film's poster is overtly retro in its styling. But I for one can't see whatever commentary is intended by it, other than that being a sociopathic killer can make you a bit lonely. I certainly didn't feel very much for the main character in this quite ordinary film which seems to be aiming for something profound and ends up failing to even deliver the cheapest of thrills. Oh well George. At least you looked classy in it and, if it's any consolation, I doubt Cary Grant would have pulled it off any better.

'The American' has been rated '15' by the BBFC and is released in the UK on the 26th of November.

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