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On Movies: Tension doesn't slacken in 'The American'

Unlike some major movie stars of today, George Clooney is not reluctant to take on roles that don't always reflect the best in human nature. In "The American," Clooney plays Jack, a high-priced assassin who works in Europe. Jack knows that the rules of his profession don't permit sentimentality or mercy, and, in the taut opening scene of the movie, set in deep snow in the beautiful Swedish wood, he acts accordingly. The scene, with cold and ruthless efficiency, sets up the rest of the movie, both its tone and its tale.

Leaving several corpses behind in Sweden, Jack heads south for Italy, where he holes up in a lovely, narrow-laned medieval hill village while awaiting his next job. "Don't make friends," is the admonition of the mysterious European who hires Jack to kill people. But Jack can't help making friends, even if he understands that he might have to kill them, and eventually the dilemma begins to gnaw at him.

He finds himself becoming emotionally close to an elderly priest with a secret or two of his own (Paolo Bonacelli) and a stunningly beautiful and frequently unclothed prostitute (Violante Placido) who seems too good to be true, at least for a small town in the Abruzzi hills. Oh, well.

At a couple of points early in the movie, Jack fumbles with a vending machine and a pay phone, and both times he opines that he is "no good with machines." The irony quickly becomes apparent, as we watch Jack assemble out of a collection of pipes and gears and spare auto parts a high-powered, precision rifle with a telescopic sight and a silencer. Jack is good with machines - his problem is that people are not machines, and people can get you killed.

"The American" is by no means a great movie, but it is suspenseful and sufficiently original to hold our interest. And Clooney, who has an admirable tendency to under act except when he is mugging for the Coen brothers, is always worth watching.

The movie, based on the Martin Booth novel "A Very Private Man," was beautifully filmed by Dutch director Anton Corbijn, whose background is in photography, and it unfolds at a deliberate but always suspenseful pace, without such modern thriller cliches as bouncing handheld camera and cuts every two or three seconds. Menace lurks everywhere in the dark claustrophobic nooks and turns of the ancient village, and Jack doesn't trust anyone, with good reason.

Jack clearly is losing stomach for the job, but we have to gather that from Clooney's expressions and body language, not his words.

Finally, after Jack tells his handler that he intends his current assignment in Italy to be his last job - "I'm out" is all he says -- the movie turns into something more familiar to audiences hip to the formulas of hit-man movies. But "The American" is never uninteresting, and there is a twist at the end that is so surprising, it doesn't at first seem to make sense.

The twist involves an unexpected killing, and my interpretation of it is that Jack is not the only person in the movie who suffers from a modicum of humanity, enough to cause hesitation. And in Jack's world, he who hesitates is truly lost.

Opened Wednesday, Sept. 1

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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