When a new hitman movie is announced, such as this one, I tend to emit a noise best described as a mixture between a sigh and a groan. Especially if it involves someone’s “last job”. Hitmen are as lazy of a storytelling device as mutants or serial killers; It’s an easily understood character type, which allows the writer to skimp on backstory and explanation. Why is this dude killing people? Because he’s a hitman. It’s the type of character that attracts storytellers who don’t really like to tell stories.
On the other hand, sometimes a shorthand can take good advantage of the audience’s familiarity with a subject, thereby allowing more time for ambiance and introspection. There’s an entire subgenre of “Zen Hitman” movies, in which the main character isn’t just a master assassin, but an empty vessel upon which to heap existentialist philosophy. My favorite films in this subgenre are the ones that are most evenly balanced between “art” and “entertainment”, being deep and evocative but never forgetting to deliver on thrills. Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits Of Control was a little too talky for me, but I absolutely loved his film Ghost Dog:The Way Of The Samurai. I’m happy to report that Anton Corbijn’s The American falls into the latter category.
Very intentionally retro in style, the film mostly evokes the 60’s and 70’s versions of the Hitman Movie’s kissing cousin; Spy films. Muted tones, with the occasional pop of a bright red payphone, or a virgin white sundress. An opening action scene in the snow. A sultry brunette, and a beautiful blonde. Or is she a redhead? And which one is the femme fatale? Or are they both? If not for the crisp, modern photography (Beautifully rendered by Martin Ruhe, who’s work I’m first exposed to here), this would fit comfortably in a film vault next to the works of Jean-Pierre Melville, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci and Terence Young. And it’s really just the images that would clash, not the style, for this has the type of spare tension and slow build that has been rarely seen in American cinema in the last thirty-plus years.
How do you know whether it’s worth checking out? Well, this shit is slow, so make sure you know that going in. Now, by “slow”, I mean by the standards of a modern Bond or Bourne film. Modern audiences are just not trained to watch something that takes it’s time, has very few explosions, and isn’t telling you what to think every second of the way. I find the pacing of this film to be completely appropriate to the story being told. Sure, there are no extended action scenes. Would a professional hitman actually get into extended action scenes, in real life (Or some approximation thereof)? If you want extended hitman action scenes, go check out Richard Donner’s Assassins, in which Antonio Banderas somehow misses Sylvester Stallone with his duel wielded guns while occupying the same cab (It also contains surprisingly few existential monologues, despite being written by the Wachowski Bros). Clooney’s character in this is in the tradition of someone like Tom Cruise in Collateral; Within a breath, he puts one in your head, and one in your heart. You’re done, son.
Actually, Clooney in this most reminds me of his previous role as “The Canadian” in Syriana, but with 100% less Matt Damon trading long winded monologues with Bashir. In fact, you hardly see any behind the scenes machinations. Clooney’s character (Sometimes referred to by a traditional J name, Jack, and sometimes as Mr. Butterfly) is as in the dark as we are, and as the story goes on, we start to become as twitchy and paranoid as he is. Danger potentially lurks around every corner, everyone has secrets, and he has no one to help him carry his burden. Mr. Butterfly doesn’t have very telling dialogue, so the whole film feels like an acting exercise in how much George can convey with his eyes, hands, and neck.
It’s not for everyone. The majority of the theater, including the buddy who came with me, clearly didn’t like it. But if anything I’ve said sounds intriguing, I would say it’s worth a look. The photography is gorgeous, and well worth seeing in the theater. The music is sparse, but effective. And the action scenes, when they do occur, are very tense and brutally satisfying. Take a break from the frenetic modern spy flick, and soak in the atmospheric beauty of an old school spy film.