After a horrendous summer movie season, the fall/winter movie season has thankfully begun and I can only hope that it will help erase the memory of the past four months. Unfortunately, THE AMERICAN won’t be joining the fight to salvage 2010 despite some things that go very well for it. Focus Features has deceptively marketed this George Clooney drama as an action movie, which cannot be farther from the truth. Its an unbearably slow, but stunningly beautiful looking movie that’s about very little.

George Clooney plays an American assassin who works for some British old guy, which is all we’re given about the character. THE AMERICAN opens somewhere in Sweden where Clooney is with some beautiful woman we presume to be his lover. Suddenly some Swedish gunmen show up trying to kill Clooney, but he disposes of them quickly and then he kills his lover. No explanation is given as to what is going on, which I liked. We next see Clooney talking on the phone with his British contact, who sends Clooney to a village in Italy to hide out and await further instructions. When he gets there, Clooney is given an assignment to build a bad-ass sniper rifle for a woman assassin (Thekla Reuten), who is scheduled to show up to pick the weapon up from Clooney and pay him for his services. At the village, Clooney befriends the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who seems to immediately see right through Clooney’s “photojournalist” façade. Clooney also meets a friendly hooker (Violante Placido) who falls for him and that, as you may not be surprised to find, complicates things.

My main gripe about THE AMERICAN isn’t about its slow pacing because anyone can tell you that with the right story, a movie can be paced in any manner and it won’t detract from the enjoyment of the movie. Where pacing becomes an issue is when other, more important elements of the film fail to work. With that said, THE AMERICAN loves to take its sweet fucking time from one scene to the next. I could tell I was in for a slow burn when the opening sequence opened without any music and the camera lingered on shots like a car moving through a long tunnel to its very end. Although its duration is not long (1 hour and 45 minutes), THE AMERICAN feels like a much longer movie so I don’t recommend you catch the late night showing.

Where THE AMERICAN mostly fails is in its story. In the end, its really about a whole lot of nothing and even with the sparse story we’re given, this is the type of story we have seen countless times before. I didn’t want to see a formidable assassin spend the majority of his time in the movie building a rifle for another assassin. What kind of stupid asshole assignment is that? Why should anyone give a shit about such an assignment? Now I know the movie is not really about that. Its about Clooney, a cold-blooded, hardened killer, who learns to feel, to love and be loved. His assignment is meant to make him realize that the life he’s leading is no longer for him. Admittedly, I did not go into this movie expecting this. I didn’t read the review for the film so I didn’t know what it was really about and I solely went off of what the trailers showed me. The trailers made the movie look like a Hollywood action thriller and what I got instead was a European character study.

Furthermore, I would have bought into the film’s plot if it had been well executed and this is where pacing becomes more important. The story did not have enough substance to sustain a slow paced movie. The filmmakers should have provided more backstory to Clooney’s character. We’re basically told nothing about Clooney’s character, which would be an interesting way to present a character in a better crafted story. However, since we already have little to work with, it would have been nice to have done more with Clooney’s character. The filmmakers should also have conceived of a more interesting assignment for Clooney rather than have him build a gun for someone else. There are a few action sequences to break the monotony, but they are few and far between, too short, and unimaginative. The action climax is hilariously anticlimactic and you feel a little cheated for having to wait so long to get such a lame ending.

Where THE AMERICAN works is in the good performances given by all the characters and the visually arresting cinematography. I enjoyed Clooney’s subdued performance in this movie more than his performance in last year’s UP IN THE AIR.  Unlike that movie, Clooney doesn’t play Clooney here. He doesn’t try to be a modern reincarnation of Cary Grant like he seems to do in most of his movies. Here he displays a cold, unemotional visage and he’s a man of very few words. He possesses a dark and isolated view of the world where he trusts absolutely no one. This is a side of Clooney I have not seen before and for that, I better appreciated his performance. Its subtle and he relies more upon his body language and mannerisms to convey his intent rather than upon dialogue. Of course, this also means that he’s probably alienated 99% of his audience, which is female. Women like to watch him charm the fuck out of them and instead they’re going to get a Clooney who’s more prone to kill you than to fuck you.

Another strong aspect of THE AMERICAN is the stunning cinematography by DP Martin Ruhe and first-time feature film director Anton Corbijn. Corbijn is a Dutch photographer and music video director who directed the music video for Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” His photography and music video work is quite evident here and I felt that the director focused on the look of the film much more than anything else. You can freeze frame any shot in this movie and you will have a perfectly composed shot suitable for framing. There’s no doubt that Corbijn knows how to visually design a movie, but I’m not sure if that translates into an ability to shoot a movie where he has to tell a story.

THE AMERICAN is a dreary movie that had it been injected with a bit more juice, it probably would have turned out to be a far more exciting film. However, as it is, the movie is a snail-paced bore of a film that tells a story that’s been told countless of times in better movies.

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