Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cinema 2010: Can a hitman grow a heart of gold?

It is part symbolic tale, "The American" from 2010 with George Clooney in the title role, and part vehicle for one of Hollywood's top leading men.

"The American" is also a crime thriller, but not so much one constrained by the usual conventions of the genre. It may be best to watch this film in a mindset to simply enjoy the cinematography, soundtrack, and characters — plotlines be somewhat damned.

Clooney is Jack, the American, introduced as a cold creature even by professional killer standards. The action opens in a rustic house in Scandinavia. Jack is already up from the shared bed, staring away from his female companion. Soon he will be on the lam, not to mention on the lookout for a new lover.

Jack hides out in a small, medieval-looking village in Italy. He keeps in shape, takes his pleasure at the local bordello and accepts a job building an assassin's rifle. The pace is purposeful. Viewers have ample opportunity to examine the often charmless lifestyle of hiding out. The musical score is minimal but combines with ambient sound to render a potent accompaniment to the loneliness of the paid assassin.

Fans of Clooney are rewarded with fullscreen close-ups and scenes where the heart throb, who was 49 when he made this movie, further tones his torso with an old-school regimen of calisthenics. The star's backside even puts in a fleeting partial, however the human posterior is far better represented in scenes throughout the film by Jack's romantic interests and by a female client.

The female nudity is languorous but the altogether here is not altogether gratuitous. Instead those scenes cue viewers to Jack's attitude toward women, which can be aptly expressed in a common three-word phrase that rhymes with crass. What else would you expect from a paid assassin and part-time psychopath? But those sensual experiences also awaken a deeper yearning in Jack, who is called Mr. Butterfly by some because of a crude tattoo between his shoulders.

That tatt at first seems an odd symbol for the man. It is unlike the colorful butterfly sported by Steve McQueen's title character in the 1973 flick "Papillon." Whereas Papillon wore on his chest an emblem of his desire to be free, Jack's body art brings to mind more of a clockwork butterfly. Viewed this way it could indeed be an apt coat of arms for a cold-blooded gunman. I just wish director Anton Corbijn would have created a design with more style than a hurried graffiti tag.

Still the ink captures the curiosity of the beautiful prostitute Clara, who does not see things clearly. Although much younger than Jack, her favorite john, Clara is seduced by his ardor or perhaps merely by the performance of a man whose profession demands he be in complete control of himself.

The longer Jack is in hiding, the larger looms the possibility of his reinvention, if not redemption. "You think you can escape history," the village monsignor chides his new American pal. The worldly-wise cleric even questions Jack's cover story as a magazine photographer, advising him that "Journalism cannot make you a rich man," then suspecting what every movie-goer already knows: "Maybe you are already rich …"

Indeed, Clooney's persona has intruded on his character from the film's beginning. Nothing Jack does can turn us against this character played by the star actor. We root for Jack to outsmart his pursuers. We yearn for the happy end — in this we are wonderfully manipulated by the film. Will Jack win those dual keys to a cynic's earthly paradise — the love of a beautiful woman and envelopes full of walk-away cash? Maybe the monsignor knows.

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