The title of director Anton Corbijn’s The American isn’t just a reference to the titular character, an assassin played by George Clooney, it’s also an indication of the film’s place within the thriller genre. Although Clooney’s character is indeed a foreigner in the European locales in which the film takes place, the title hints at the inspiration the film draws from the cool, methodical pacing of many European thrillers. Unlike recent American entries in the genre, such as the break-neck Bourne movies, tension here builds slowly towards brief episodes of violence, the film’s thoughtful intrigue demanding a different kind of viewer than the usual assassin-themed thrill ride.
Drawing inspiration from classics like Alain Delon’s Le Samourai, a film which also inspired the equally somber (and excellent) assassin yarn Ghost Dog, The American plays up the anticipation rather than overdose its audience with action. Although the change of pace is a welcome relief from the sometimes numbing barrage of set-pieces in thrillers like Salt, the movie is a mixed bag which may leave audiences feeling ambivalent.
Much of the story revolves around the unique premise of the creation of a single gun (which might as well be a samurai sword), meticulously crafted by Clooney’s character Jack throughout the movie. The gun, commissioned by Jack’s shadowy boss Pavel (Johan Leyson) for a mysterious woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), has a certain mystical significance which wears a little thin as its construction stretches on.
It’s established early on, during a dramatic and effective shootout in Sweden, that Jack is a seasoned assassin, a truly cold-blooded expert at what he does (namely, make people dead). However, his role as master gun-maker (sword-smith) isn’t entirely plausible. Surely the skills required to take out targets, out-shoot rivals, and dodge bullets require a slightly different kind of talent than the technical expertise behind gun design? After all, in the real world, Soviet gun designer Mikhail Kalashnikov never fired a shot at another human being despite the worldwide popularity of his AK-47 assault rifle, a ubiquitous instrument of death. In the world of fiction, Batman’s civilian weapon designer, humble Lucius Fox, is about as antithetical to Bruce Wayne’s violent vigilante as one can be (which is why Morgan Freeman was the natural choice to play him in Christopher Nolan’s recent films).
This may all sound like nit-picking, but Jack’s gun is arguably the central plot device, and acts as an obvious (and sometimes overbearing) metaphor for the assassin himself; cold as iron, relying on meticulous training and a refined, almost mechanical killer instinct. While the gun never hesitates once the trigger is pulled, Jack finds himself straying further away from unquestioning obedience to Pavel.
Sought after by the same group of bad guys who tried to get the better of him in Sweden, Jack comes to harbor suspicions about Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute he falls for while hiding out in Italy. Coming dangerously close to killing her, Jack decides he wants out of the assassin game. Unlike the gun he’s crafting, Jack isn’t a heartless machine after all, choosing his emotional investment in Clara over his cold-blooded instincts.
Whether Jack has made the right choice or not presents audiences with an intriguing predicament which unfolds throughout the latter part of the film. While its ending leaves the story feeling satisfyingly complete, viewers who bore easily or who don’t buy the movie’s premise from the beginning may find that the destination wasn’t worth the slow, sometimes plodding, journey. That said, The American is a sophisticated, interesting film, marking one of Clooney’s more memorable roles, as well as being one of the better spy thrillers in recent memory.