Christopher Smith reviews ‘The American’

George_Clooney_The_American_movie_image
George_Clooney_The_American_movie_image
Posted Sept. 09, 2010, at 11:24 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

“The American”

Directed by Anton Corbijn, written by Rown Joffe, 155 minutes, rated R.

If ever there was a film that featured a title loaded with irony, it’s Anton Corbijn’s “The American.”

The film stars one of America’s most popular leading men — George Clooney — but everything else about the movie eschews what it means to be an American thriller now. The film opens briefly in Sweden and then, for the rest of the movie, we’re in the hills of Italy. Beyond Clooney and his character, there otherwise is no connection to anything American in “The American.”

This is a movie made with a European sensibility — the focus is on character and story (and a believable story, at that), not on explosions, bravado and dialogue so crippled by cliches, you either want to cover your ears or throw grease at the screen.

As such, American audiences either will love this movie for its intelligence, authority and restraint, or they will hate it because it refuses to come through with a more muscular form of entertainment.

Here is a movie for thinking people that thrives in the absence of a score (some music accompanies the movie, but only a trace). Many will argue that it’s too slow and self-indulgent. Others will long for something to go “boom!” while Corbijn takes his time building a quiet sense of dread and suspense.

I loved this movie. I loved it for giving the finger to what so many American thrillers have become. Instead of coming off an assembly line, here is a thriller that’s fresh and different, focused and smart, and so because of this, it’s no wonder it made only $13 million at the weekend box office. How could it stand a chance in the absence of serious gunfire, nuclear warfare and some pumped-up muscle-head here to save the world?

Sorry to rail against such fare, but given that so much of our culture is dumbed down to the point of incompetence, it’s sad knowing that this movie’s poor showing at the box office likely will make it difficult for other films of similar ilk to make their way onto the big screen. In its place will be the next Adam Sandler movie. And we all know the depth of the daring risks he takes.

In the film, Clooney is Jack, an international assassin who is so cunning, he would make novelist John Le Carre proud. After fleeing events in Sweden, he leaves for Italy, where he takes to a small town built into a mountainside and waits, knowing that sooner or later he will come under attack by the very people he left behind in Sweden.

In the meantime, events occur that shift the movie off its axis. Jack receives a job offer from his contact, Pavel (Johan Leysen), to build an exacting piece of weaponry for another assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Jack meets a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who senses in Jack how haunted he is by life. And after a visit to a whorehouse, Jack also meets Clara (Violante Placido), who is so turned on by his robust technique in the bedroom, soon she wants nothing to do with his money and everything to do with him. Though Jack has learned to steer clear of relation-ships, he still falls for Clara, which complicates the movie immeasurably.

What lifts the film higher are Martin Ruhe’s superb cinematography, which somehow makes Italy look equally beautiful and terrifying; the way the movie measures Jack’s isolation by often showing him in extreme close-up; and how Rowan Joffe’s script, itself based on Martin Booth’s novel, “A Very Private Gentleman,” stays true to the book’s title. We don’t come to know much about Jack, but through Clooney’s fine performance, we can hear the skeletons rattling beyond his furrowed brow and know that the ghosts inside are eager to bust free. Grade: A

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

Recommended: The ‘Skeleton Key’ Blu-ray

Hoodoo, voodoo and cheap thrills set in a Louisiana backwater. Director Ian Softley plays the first half of this ripe Southern Gothic straight before smoking some homegrown hoodoo himself and delivering a final half that embraces its share of absurdity. The film finds Kate Hudson hopping the tracks into horror, which is a shrewd move for a woman whose career has become a horror. While the movie is far from the showpiece Hudson deserves, she nevertheless is able to reveal appealing new dimensions that the slight, meet-cute formula of her recent romantic comedies haven’t allowed her to show. She’s not alone in mixing things up. Venerable actress Gena Rowlands, huffing and puffing as if she were a 1960s-era Bette Davis, also stars, as does Peter Sarsgaard and John Hurt in creepy supporting roles. Rated: PG 13. Grade: B

Avoid: ‘Lost in Space’ Blu-ray

This big-screen version of the campy 1960s television series, “Lost in Space,” is now available on Blu-ray, which will leave some cheering, and others — those who actually see the film — weeping in dim, colorless rooms for all that was lost in the translation. Danger, moviegoers. “Lost in Space” is a great big intergalactic mess that features a never-ending barrage of special effects that cut through your senses like the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun and are used, with some success, to divert your attention from the film’s many black holes, not the least of which are its poorly written script and its grade school-quality acting. Opening with a terrific — and hastily explained — space battle, the film is, of course, about the Robinson family — Professor John Robinson (William Hurt), his wife, Maureen (Mimi Rogers), their daughters, Judy and Penny (Heather Graham and Lacey Chabert), and their son, Will (Jack Johnson) — who leave our troubled Earth with ace pilot, Don West (Matt LeBlanc) to find Alpha Prime, the only other planet in the solar system known to support human life. Along the way, they are undermined by the evil Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman), helped and hindered by a rebellious robot, chased after by a ferocious band of space spiders, marooned on an unknown planet — and forced to confront, of all things, their inadequate family values. Unfortunately, while all of this does make for a film that’s still a wonder to look at, none of it makes for a story that’s a wonder to watch unfold. These people aren’t the Robinsons we remember, but dull, puffed-up cast-offs in bondage gear who look as though they belong more in a porno movie than they do in a film based on an admittedly silly piece of ‘60s nostalgia. And that’s where the film misses the point — it takes itself seriously. Far too seriously. The evening news isn’t this serious. You don’t sense the actors winking at the audience as you did in the television series. Instead, what you sense is humiliation from Hurt, false bravado from a bulked-up LeBlanc and acute indigestion from Rogers. Lost in space, indeed. Rated PG-13. Grade: C-

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Fridays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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