The Taser's Edge

The American (2010), directed by Anton Corbijn

I often post the trailer to a movie as a way to introduce it before reviewing it.  The one above is singularly annoying, as that fuzzy-radio-ized American voice which effectively narrates the trailer is found nowhere in the film.

The basic plot is that George Clooney’s character is an assassin and a gunsmith for assassins.  He is aging, he has too much loss from a violent past bearing down on him, some murderous Swedes are after him, and he settles in a quiet Italian village in order to complete a job.  Although he knows that his work requires that he never has truly personal relationships, he falls in love with a prostitute and she falls in love with him.  Eventually, of course, his career choice catches up with him and anyone near him.

I read the book on which this was based after the movie came out, by which time Martin Booth’s 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman had already been re-titled and re-released as The American.  That novel is one of the best I read last year, but it was also clear as I read it that it would not actually be filmed.  That is, the movie would not work if it really followed the book.

In the book, the assassin never names himself, and it’s not really even clear whether he’s an American or not.  Instead of photographing architecture as in the movie, he photographs and draws butterflies. (Book “Flaw” 1: No butterflies in movies!) He becomes good friends with the priest, who is actually a holy man, and they have spiritual conversations over the priest’s wonderful cooking. (Flaw 2: No non-stereotypical priests in movies!)  Oh yes, also in the book, the Clooney character’s not an assassin. (Flaw 3: Only actual assassins, not other members of the assassin industry, are in movies!).

The biggest way in which the book fought being filmed, however, was in the way that the main character narrated it.  So much of it is his internal processing of his environment as only a highly trained and veteran hunted man could.  (Flaw 4: No thoughts in movies!) Car colors, makes, and models, and ditto with firearms.  Choosing to make sure no one can follow him back to his home by winding endlessly through the village streets on the way home.  Picking up on who is new to town, even though he himself is new to town.  Moreover, it is only very slowly that he tells us about his past or what he is doing in town. (Flaw 5: No waiting, ambiguity, or subtlety in movies!)

In the book, it takes a long while for us to know what his work really entails, while the opening scene of the movie leaves three people dead at his hand. It has altogether too much James Bond-ing, down to the throwaway beautiful (and sometimes deadly) women, the Walther PP7 Clooney carries, and the Vespa chase down ancient streets and stairways.

It’s actually sad that they couldn’t figure out some way to put a monologue over the top, both because the visuals for the film aren’t enough to translate the book, and because the reason I watch George Clooney movies is to hear his voice.  Yes, he’s beautiful (although this movie shows that even Clooney’s butt has aged in the eight years since Solaris), but his voice is even better, and this film is very low on dialogue.

Thankfully, next on the release schedule for Clooney appears to be The Descendants, and Alexander Payne has yet to disappoint at dialogue or voiceover (sadly, no great YouTube proof).

The American: solidly in the upper middle of the pretty-good-but-not-great pack.