Having established himself as a filmmaker with the moodily artful Ian Curtis biopic Control (2007), portrait photographer Anton Corbjin turns for his second feature to material that ostensibly could not be more different – a fish-out-of-water thriller in which, following a botched affair in Sweden, an ageing, emotionally frigid American assassin (played by George Clooney) finds himself savouring life and love in the mountains of Abruzzo, before finally being forced to confront the sins of his past.

This might all sound like pure cliché, but the crucial word here is 'pure'. The American, adapted by Rowan Joffe from the late Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, has been pared right down to its barest essentials, with events, and even dialogue, proving very spare. Here, as in Suzuki Seijun's Branded To Kill (1967), Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967) or Johnnie To's Vengeance (2009), the killer-for-hire subgenre takes on an abstract, existentialist complexion. It is as though Corbijn has gone straight from Control to The Limits Of Control (2009).

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The result is an (in)action movie for adults, as redemption-seeking antihero Jack (or is it Edward?) must face himself in the eyes of God – or at least in the eyes of His far from perfect representative on earth, the ever watchful Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). Meanwhile, Jack's attempts to avoid all human emotion lead him into the arms of local working girl Clara (Violante Placido), only to find that neither of them is long able to maintain the masks of detachment that go with their respective professions.

Once the film's cold (in every sense) prologue in Sweden is over and Jack is ensconced in the Italian town of Castel del Monte, he spends most of his days painstakingly constructing a "weapon with the firing capacity of a submachine gun and the range of a rifle", made to order for the mysterious Belgian assassin Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Such a weapon can of course have only one purpose, and viewers will be all too aware that this film is likely to end, much as it begins, in a deadly hail of bullets. Like Jack, however, Corbijn has lost interest in the sound and fury of violent action, preferring instead to focus his energies on his own meticulous craftsmanship – and so he strips down the familiar tropes of his plot before reconfiguring them into something which, for all its high impact, is finely honed and delicate in its handling.

As those who would have him permanently out of the picture circle for the kill, Jack's fatalistic waiting game is reminiscent of that most American of genres, the oater – an impression clinched by a glimpse of Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) playing on the local bar's television. "Sergio Leone – Italiano", comments the barman - and like Leone, Corbijn invests his American with a decidedly European setting and sensibility. Anyone expecting Bourne or even Bond is bound to be disappointed – for this is a quiet American, marked not by spectacular set-pieces but rather understated performances, a restrained pace, and all the melancholy of alienation.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2010
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An assassin tries to escape his past.
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London 2010
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