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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of appeal for a limited audience that doesn't expect too much.

. "The American"

If George Clooney were not the title character of this hitman thriller which spends a lot of quality time in the town of Abruzzo, Italy, few American filmgoers would see it. Those that would are of the arthouse and foreign film persuasion. But with the compelling Mr. Clooney, it's a film with an altogether improved boxoffice potential for adults in the U.S. and Canada.

Besides the considerable appeal of the Clooney irridescence in Dutch-born director Anton Corbijn's ("Control") take on the efficient assassin movie, there is also the fact that it's in English (screenplay from Rowan Joffe, "28 Weeks Later" adapted from Martin Booth's novel, "A Very Private Gentleman"), so no reading requirements needed.

Other than that, its long, wordless, moody silences are very much in the style of European film drama (or Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood westerns). In such dramatic constructions, character may be expressed by visual cues as to the thoughts and fears that linger in the mind or which pass between people. Interpretive connections are made, as well, to the audience on the other side of the closely examining lens. European filmmakers tend to put more faith in such understatement than the Americans.

At first, it seems like an effective choice, seeing Clooney as Jack, a contract killer and master gunsmith, spending what appears to be one of those satisfied post-coital moments with a woman in a cozy chalet with a warming fireplace. The visuals tell us all we need to know about the situation, which then continues the following morning with the couple setting out in boots and parkas for a stroll across the snowy plain. When shots ring out, the real-world factors in Jack's life are spelled out by the more vicious language of his line of work.

After demonstrating his prowess with enemies who get the drop on him, and taking care of loose ends, Jack reports to his contractor that, "they found me." He receives the new job that takes him to the warmer climate of Abruzzo, 50 miles east of Rome, where he meets Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and his new client, the devastating Mathilde (Finnish Thekla Reuten). For this chilly lady he builds a very lethal automatic rifle that fits in an attache' case, specific jobsite unkown.

The man has his normal, private appetites, too. Because of the cold requirements of his profession to never become bound by his emotions to anyone, he seeks a working girl from a local bordello. Unpredicatably for him, his first assignation is with Clara (Violante Placido), a rather smashing beauty with a sprightly personality, a body and a willingness to use it for the paying customers. But this is a package that men die for and, from then on it's only her he will consider for body contact and companionship. Good taste, that American boy.

The assassin has a lot to think about and a fair amount to fear. We spend many extended minutes with him anticipating ambushes and analyzing new places for lurking enemies who might again, inexplicably, anticipate his moves. We read the internal dialogue occurring behind his alert eyes and see a fair amount of paranoia. It's only fair to say that Clooney conveys a lot in his silences and I would guess the opportunity to do so played a part in his wanting to play the role so much that he co-produced the film.

But as close as he comes to the performance of a European who may be much more experienced with and attuned to silent emoting, the difficulty of pace and involvement show up to test our patience with steady regularity. Despite its proper running time of 105 minutes, we get a little tired of a hitman with so much screen time for inner turmoil and vacillation of purpose.

German actor-composer Herbert Gronemeyer's tense score keeps it wound up nicely and cinematographer Martin Ruhe ("Harry Brown") does a pro job on the visuals.

It's hard, and probably improper, to dwell too much on problems with a film that features such a superb international cast, a generous supply of gorgeous women (one of whom has a killer personality), a thoroughly graphic love scene with brief frontal nudity, and a steady drumbeat of suspense. It's just that, with all that, it's like a short story extended to novel length--a bit low-cal in the meat of the piece.

"The American" is on the cusp of something good, perhaps delicious. But it doesn't quite get there. It's minimalist for no other reason than stylism. You want to pat the filmmakers on the back and say, "golly, you've done so much with so little." But you can't. Instead, it's the corollary. "Sorry, but you've done so little with so much."

Still, by no means is it a failure. Now that you know not to expect too much, I can tell you that it's safe to go see it and spend some time with George in Italy. Just be ready to duck the gunshots.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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