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09/01/2010

An 'American' in paralysis

George Clooney, one of the world's most gregarious movie stars in real life, has gone stoic on screen to the extent that it's almost time to check for a pulse.

After diving into such a deep trance in "The Men Who Stare At Goats" last year that it looked like he was auditioning for dream-state status in either "Avatar" or "Inception," Clooney has emerged instead to mope his way through "The American," a hit-man thriller that could have been titled "The Quiet Man's Got a Gun."  

Thank goodness for last year's excellent "Up in the Air."  That drama-with-comedy with Clooney as a corporate ax man was dour and bitter as well.  But it was also quick-witted and cleverly structured.

My problem with "The American" is not Clooney's squinty-eyed acting or the plot about a cold-blooded killer on the run who holds up in a quaint little Italian village.  The biggest drawback is that sophomore director Anton Corbijn allows "The American" to move too deliberately across the screen.

It's almost as if the actors -- especially Clooney, who does stare at goats for a brief moment in this one -- are allowed to reminisce over the scene just completed before moving on.

And there's this.  Corbijn, who used to direct music videos for a living, allows long screen moments to pass with no musical score whatsoever.  Jack (Clooney) rents a room and spends a larger-than-usual time staring out the window.  That passive outlook worked well with "Control," Corbijn's riveting debut musical bio-drama of 2007.  It's overkill here, though.

Make no mistake, Jack has a reason to be edgy.  Even though Rowan Joffe's screenplay (based on the late Martin Booth's 1990 novel "A Very Private Gentleman") gives us no back story, a sudden eruption of violence that turns the snow crimson in some Swedish woods sets the life-or-death tone before we see Jack run to Italy.

"The American" ranks as one of the most somber thrillers I've ever seen.  Clooney speaks in sing-song monotone even when he's caressing a local hooker who's also a looker (Italian actress Violante Placido as Clara).  Strictly business, he tells the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) he's in town to photograph the countryside for a vaguely spelled-out group of magazines.

Jack plans to do some shooting, all right.  But it's not with a camera.  He's assembling a long-range assassin rifle for a lady of mystery portrayed by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten.  Her sullen manner is equally as dead-pan as Clooney's.

When the plot thickens (it was congealed near-solid from the get-go), "The American" finally gets down to the nasty business.  At some point, a hit man is usually forced take a split-second to reconsider the consequences of that particular chosen line of work.

Now that's a pause I could live with.  Even with Clooney in the lead, "The American" slogs too deliberately through the underbelly of humanity.

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