'The American' did what 'The Tourist' couldn't, it developed an exciting espionage thriller without much action. 'The Tourist,' with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, faced a conundrum, it wanted to be smart and artsy, but also flashy and spectacular at the same time. Somewhere in there the movie became so lost and disjointed it was agonizing to follow or even care about. Cue 'The American' with George Clooney, now here's an artsy spy thriller that continually hints at action, but never comes right out with it.
Jack (George Clooney) is a man who makes weapons. Very specialized weapons. He constructs these instruments of death for other people who are looking to murder people in very specific, specialized ways. He's good at what he does. He's able to build a deadly accurate rifle out of spare parts he finds around a car garage.
Jack is an enigma. We never really get into his head. He's supposed to be mysterious, but we're drawn to him. Because it's George Clooney, we expect that at any second he's going to switch into action hero mode and take down everyone, but he doesn't. He quietly spends his time constructing the weapon he's supposed to make, all the while trying to avoid his employer who he thinks is plotting something. Jack doesn't trust anyone, except for a hooker he's become very fond of in a small Italian city. He visits her when he can, and it's about the only time we see Jack as a relaxed human being.
Anton Corbijn ('Control') provides some flawless direction. His pacing and editing are masterful as we get bits and pieces of Jack's story. Here and there Jack is shown building the weapon, doing push ups, and visiting an old priest. Is Jack trying to come to terms with the life he's lived, or is he just trying to survive? Maybe both. All we know is Jack is a man who could be in love and seriously wants to stop building weapons.
'The American' is a beautifully shot film as the camera pans over the Italian countryside. It's quaint, and seems like a sort of dreamscape. There's a scene where Jack is being followed by a man on a moped, which is extremely suspenseful. The most action-packed sequence in the film. As the moped careens down small alley ways it's easy to let the ancient European architecture just wash over you. Even though there's some brutal fighting going on, it's easy to get lost in the wondrous scenery.
Too many spy thrillers these days go straight for the jugular. Exposition and action is all that we get. 'The American' is unlike any of those. It's slow, methodical, and brilliant. Corbijn lingers on scenes and what's happening in them instead of regurgitating hundreds of quick cuts. It's always refreshing to see a director that doesn't feel like they have to paint a picture with a million schizophrenic brush strokes. 'The American' is beautiful, brutal, and one of the best films of the year.
I first saw 'The American' on a washed out, soft focus DVD screener from the studio that was sent out to critics for awards time. Boy, was I glad to see this movie again in HD. The 1080p/VC-1 high-def image afforded 'The American' is near perfection.
We just talked about how beautiful the entire movie is in its cinematography and the natural landscape of Italy. In HD, the beauty of the movie shines through with rich, lush colors like deep greens and stoic grays. Skintones are always natural looking, never taking on unnatural hues. Black levels are deep and add a great depth to the image that makes some of the nighttime scenes – like the moped chase – extremely exciting to watch. Closeups feature enormous amounts of detail from the small lines on the lips of Jack's lover, to Clooney's salt and pepper hair, detail here is astounding. Textures are just as perfect, giving us wonderfully detailed views of just about any surface whether it be the hard, cracked cement of Jack's apartment, or the fine wood grain that makes up the stock of the gun Jack is building. There is some apparent shimmering on a few rooftops of the village, but it's negligible at best. There are also a couple scenes that suffer from a wide variety of noise that isn't found in the rest of the movie. There's a shot during a scene that takes place in the morning that is particularly bad, but the noise disappears almost immediately. Just that one shot was affected, and then the rest of the movie looks perfect.
'The American's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix isn't as detailed and as amazing as the video presentation, but it holds its own and performs very well for what it's asked to do.
'The American' is a very quiet movie, with many scenes not featuring any dialogue whatsoever. There are quite a few times where the camera sits on Clooney in his apartment, building his weapon. Nothing is said, other than watching a master complete his work. What you want to pay attention to here is the nuanced sounds and how clear the sounds of clinging metal and Clooney's breathing are. The clarity produced, even the smallest sound effects, are some of the many delights of this soundtrack. Clooney is his usual low-talker self in this movie, but the front channel clearly produces intelligible dialogue. There's a wide variety of ambient sound coming from the rear speakers, especially during the moped chase as sounds of engines and clomping footsteps echo in the stone alleyways. This is a lossless mix that will please most everyone who picks this disc up.
'The American' is truly one of the best films of 2010. A deliberately paced, methodical thriller about a man who is good at what he does, but doesn't want to do it anymore. Full of wonderful performances and beautiful cinematography, it may not be for everyone, but I'm sure many viewers will love it. The video and audio are tremendous, but the special features package, besides an informative audio commentary, leaves a lot to be desired especially for a film of this caliber. Overall, this one comes highly recommended.