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Subdued spy film divides audiences

POSTED: September 9, 2010 1:00 a.m.
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George Clooney starts in "The American," a film about an aging assassin coming to terms with the end of his career.

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A man in plain clothes walks alone through the dim, narrow cobblestone streets of a small Italian town. His name might be Jack or it might be Edward. He is handsome but otherwise unremarkable, able to blend into crowds easily.

He hears footsteps somewhere behind him. Knowing he is being followed, he ducks behind a wall and removes his shoes so he can move silently. He pulls a gun, equipped with a silencer, from the inside of his jacket. The man following him also brandishes a gun.

The two killers stalk each other through the shadows deliberately while the people of the town sleep, unaware that two assassins are playing out this cloak and dagger chess match to the death.

This is a typical scene from "The American," a film that has already become controversial in a peculiar way. It won the Labor Day box office battle, turning in the fourth best opening performance ever for that weekend.

The controversy? Audiences have rated it extremely low, and critics are nearly as divided. It's quite rare for a film that most viewers don't like to perform well, especially over a long weekend that allows for word-of-mouth to spread.

This unusual response results mostly from marketing. Trailers highlight the film's action sequences, which are satisfying. The scene above eventually does crescendo into a full-blown chase, complete with rounds fired and automobiles crashed. But the wind-up for that scene is intentionally slow, just like the rest of the movie. That pace is not proving palatable for everyone.

"The American" includes several excellent action sequences, but it's mostly an understated character drama about an assassin (George Clooney) who reaches the end of his career and finds his life is spiritually and emotionally empty.

We really don't know whether the character's name is Jack or Edward (for clarity, let's stick with Edward here), nor do we know much else about the man. We see him barely escape an attempt on his life in Sweden as the film opens, then he travels to Italy to hide out in a remote village.

He has strict orders from his handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen), not to acquire any new attachments. Perhaps unintentionally or perhaps because he harbors a desperate need for human relationships, he does just that.

He befriends Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who forces Edward to contemplate his sinful past and spiritual future. He visits a local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), and it quickly becomes obvious they share a connection that transcends their, ahem, business relations.

Meanwhile, Pavel gives Edward a job while he's laying low. He custom-makes a rifle with unique specifications for a fellow assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten).

The film spends long stretches of time showing us the minute activities that fill Edward's days, particularly the process of making the weapon. We dwell on the procedural aspects of an assassin's lifestyle.

It's clear Edward enjoys these tasks, the way we all enjoy using our skills.

But slowly we conclude that these tasks are all Edward has. What's more, he distrusts and suspects every person in his life, including Clara, who has shown him nothing but affection. Underneath Clooney's striking exterior, Edward hides a malignant psyche.

The film is beautifully shot. Forgetting all else, it's a fine travelogue of the Italian countryside. It's also incredibly sexy at times, thanks to Clooney, Placido and Reuten. And it maintains a piano wire tension, especially when Mathilde is around and makes Edward wonder whether she intends to seduce him or kill him.

But "The American" will be too slow for many viewers. It also helps if you're a fan of European spy movies like "Le Samourai" (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967) or the similarly methodical, muted Steve McQueen classic, "Bullitt" (Peter Yates, 1968).

Consider the adjective "subdued": whether that word entices you or scares you away might be the best gauge of whether "The American" is worth your time.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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