One of the most divisive films of the year, Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” arrives on DVD (and Blu-ray, Amazon VOD, etc) today. Based on Martin Booth’s novel “A Very Private Gentleman,” it stars George Clooney as an American assassin laying low in Italy after being hunted by some Swedish hit-men. The picture received very mixed reviews (62% at Rotten Tomatoes), and though its $35 million domestic gross (not to mention the additional $29 million made oversees) is plenty for how little it cost, most U.S. audiences came away terribly disappointed (“D-” grade on Cinemascore). And they seemed to have every right to be, given the marketing, which sold the slow and relatively uneventful picture as something at least thrilling, if not entirely action-packed.
But is it deserving of more love than it’s been given? And were moviegoers actually lured into a trap by the likes of Clooney and a well-edited montage of every shot featuring a handgun or rifle? Let me tackle the second question first. Clooney is not much of a box office draw anyway, having seen lower domestic takes in the last ten years on literally half the films he’s starred in (including voice work). Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that Focus Features would try to sell people on the guns and nudity. But they didn’t lie, nor did they do anything as drastic as promise action that wasn’t in the movie (like the infamous Navy recruitment video footage cut into the trailer for “Annapolis”). Honestly I don’t know what more they could have shown us, since really there’s not much else going on in the film.
That leads me to the film itself, which indeed is a bore and undeserving of all the defensive praise and cries of “underrated!” I’ve been seeing around the web today. It’s nice to look at, I’ll give it that. Nothing incredible, but I wouldn’t expect less from Corbijn (“Control”) than he displays here. And it’s nice that it’s so slow so we can appreciate the Italian scenery and the colorful lighting schemes (it’s one of those films that does a lot of contrasting between green- and red-lit or yellow- and blue-lit backgrounds). And I guess if you’re drawn in by either Clooney’s face or Violante Placido’s breasts, those are each constantly on screen for your eyes to enjoy, as well. Otherwise, and I do believe those writers who are going to bat for this one have unfortunately raised my expectations, “The American” really is a total disappointment.
The story is nothing to celebrate. There’s a difference between subtle plot and nuanced character development and the kind of empty sparsity laid out here by adapting screenwriter Rowan Joffé. Initially it seems to be a minimally scripted film in which we’re always wanting to know more about the “very private gentleman” Clooney plays, and why those Swedes are after him. The problem is, there is never a payoff. The ending is both predicable and banal, particularly if you’re familiar with the classic thrillers it yearns to evoke. Okay, so it’s a throwback, but even if in theory we’d like more movies that look and feel like the greats of old, in reality we can just go and watch the actual Melville or ’70s paranoia-heavy movies themselves. Reversion is only worthwhile if there’s revision or otherwise some kind of fresh, forward ideas involved.
“The American” has no remarkable performances — “understated” here is more like unrealized — and nothing much to say about anything, not even the romance between the lonely gunman and his new prostitute friend (Placido) at the center of the story. And neither Joffé nor Corbijn nor Clooney gives us any reason to care emotionally. Franky, I often felt I might as well be watching the intentionally flat and cartoonish “Shoot ‘Em Up,” also about a gun-toting loner and an Italian hooker. It’s not even as pretentious as some of the film’s detractors claim. I might have appreciated that much, since it would be something. Instead the film is as mindless as “The Expendables,” if not more so.
Maybe I’m missing something. And likely between this and my criticism that “Anthony Zimmer” (the film “The Tourist” is based on) didn’t have enough going on, action-wise, I’m probably starting to seem like a blockbuster-hungry plebeian. The thing is, I’m with all of you who want films like “The American” and maybe even “The Tourist” to do well, or to be better, because they’re the kind of old-fashioned motion pictures that Hollywood doesn’t typically make anymore. However, I can’t get behind either, or others, just because they slightly resemble or strive to be something they aren’t. And this isn’t exactly a badly made film so much as it is an uninteresting and wholly insignificnt one. And as I noted in my depressing rant about abandoning movies that don’t do it for me, there’s just not enough room for such disappointingly underwhelming cinema out there.
Also on DVD, and sadly better worth your time, at least if you are looking for mindless fluff, is “Resident Evil: Afterlife.” I shared some thoughts on that fun movie (which is likely not much different without the 3-D) here.