The American

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Opens Sept. 1

Jack (George Clooney)

knows something is going wrong in his life. As

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The American

opens, he’s sitting happily in front of a fireplace in a cabin in a gorgeously remote part of Sweden with the very unclothed Ingrid (Irina Björklund), but come the next morning, a quick series of events forces him to hop a train to Rome all by himself. Something’s amiss, and he seeks counsel from an older man named Pavel (Johan Leysen), who advises him to repair to a small town in the rolling, picturesque mountains of the Abruzzo region of Italy. There, Jack rediscovers the joys of a simpler life, falls into discussions of the soul with a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), performs some rewarding manual labor for the stunning Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), and rekindles his more primary instincts in the arms and bed of Clara (Violante Placido).

Yes,

The American

shares a few superficial themes with Elizabeth Gilbert’s recently Julia Roberts-ed memoir. It’s only in the details that the comparison goes to pot: Rather than a divorced journalist searching for balance, Jack is a salt-and-peppered international assassin running away from some Swedes. Pavel is his handler, Mathilde is a contact hiring him to build a high-powered rifle, and Clara is a prostitute. Even so, Jack is seeking a kind of balance to his life, too, and imagines what it might be like if he could get out of the game completely. So while

The American

is no

Eat Pray Love

, it’s very much a

Shoot Kill Fuck

.

As adapted by screenwriter Rowan Joffe, the stylish suspense of Martin Booth’s 1990 novel

A Very Private Gentleman

gets turned into something both more opaque and more conventional. In the book, the titular antihero is known as Signor Farfalla—Mr. Butterfly—by the townsfolk in the Italian village where he, an amateur lepidopterist and painter, has ostensibly come to look for a rare species. He’s actually an expert weaponsmaker who, while working on his current job, grows more cautious and suspicious about his assignment.

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Joffe and director Anton Corbijn—the rock photographer/video director who made his feature debut with the 2007 Joy Division/Ian Curtis biopic

Control

—make their Mr. Butterfly more obtuse and less charismatic. Clooney’s Jack is highly skilled and capable, as emotionally unavailable as a statue—even though Pavel reminds him that he used to know he shouldn’t make friends—and increasingly paranoid. Why some renegade Swedes would be after him the movie never explains, and his new weaponsmaking job is offered as a quiet consolation, something where he doesn’t even have to pull the trigger.

Hence he’s holed up in Castel del Monte, a beautiful little medieval town of narrow, winding cobblestone streets where all the ladies of the evening at its brothel look either as pneumatically proportioned as Helmut Newton subjects or as supermodel attractive as Clara. When he’s not hand-fabricating a muzzle suppressor or mercury-tipped ammunition, Jack enjoys a brandy with the priest, and his paid nights with Clara soon become dinner and a picnic off the clock. Something about Mathilde doesn’t feel quite right to Jack, though, and it’s surprisingly not that this player in the international assassin world shows up to on-the-downlow meets in smalltown Italy looking like she was personally styled and accessorized by Anna Wintour.

Corbijn lets his cinematographer Martin Ruhe capture some stunning countryside, and in a town as strikingly historic as Castel del Monte you don’t need to be Clooney to look good walking down its narrow streets. But look good Clooney does, toned and tight to give off the physical appearance of somebody who needs to be athletically good at his job. Clooney has never been particularly convincing as a man of action, though—more so a man of quick wit and big-picture thinking, which is why he’s so effortless as Danny Ocean and

Out of Sight

’s Jack Foley, men who prefer to use brains over brawn because they’re not as skilled at the “doing things” part.

And while Clooney’s Jack proves himself mentally quick on his feet and quite firearms proficient, he comes off more the cornered animal than the assassin who made his living stalking prey. It’s a performance that’s supposed to be self-contained, but too often mere staring gets passed off as intensity, while standing in a room doing nothing is supposedly a thumbnail for highly polished mental wheels turning inside the brain.

The whole movie is similarly afflicted: The lovely establishing shots, deliberate pace, and a lack of mood-setting soundtrack music feel like they’re getting passed off as customary art-house seriousness, and while Rowan’s script thankfully doesn’t resort to using dumbed-down dialogue to explain plot points, an economy of talking doesn’t inherently translate to intelligence.

The American

refreshingly aims to be a more adult kind of action thriller indicative of earlier movie eras—even its movie poster is a throwback to 1960s designs—and the filmmakers get many surface details right. The one thing overlooked is a well-crafted story that warrants this sort of meticulous treatment, one that creates characters that make the movie’s tense and anxious moments feel more, well, tense and anxious. At its very close

The American

reaches for a gravitas it hasn’t yet earned, and ends up feeling like an impressively stylized but ultimately empty glass box.

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