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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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