The American, Anton Corbijn's stylish follow-up to Control, his celebrated biopic of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, is as slick and beautiful as you might expect. Yes, "the mysterious hit man trying to lie low who gets sucked into one last job" plot couldn't be more familiar, but when you've got Clooney up front and the sublime Abruzzo hills in the background, a lot can be forgiven.
Based on Martin Booth's 1991 novel A Very Private Gentleman, Corbijn's film switches the English protagonist for an American, Jack. It's a change that might be seen as classic pandering to Hollywood, were the chosen A-lister not Clooney, an actor with a house on Lake Como and a well-known love of Italy (not to mention his links with a number of Italian women). Jack is a man of few words and careful actions, and Gorgeous George bravely suppresses his usual twinkle-eyed charm.
After a shocking opening scene in which a romantic weekend in a Swedish log cabin is brutally interrupted by the demands of Jack's day job, he is urged by his equally mysterious handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) to hole up in a tiny Italian village until it all blows over. There, despite attempts to remain the very private gentleman the novel prescribes, Jack finds solace in the traditional polarities of a fatherly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a not-very-motherly prostitute (Violante Placido — see the current print edition of Esquire for more).
Pavel asks him for one last job: to build a bespoke gun for a pneumatic blonde client, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). As the familiar story goes, both Jack and the audience know that this commission has all the hallmarks of a very bad idea.
There is a certain quiet beauty to the scenes where Jack is alone in his room building the weapon for Mathilde: planing and drilling with a practised meticulousness. It's also impossible not to emit an envious sigh when a shirtless Clooney, showing the kind of brawn that suggests manual labour and rugged living rather than gym workouts and chest waxes, performs his equally precise routines of chin-ups and stretches.
The mood throughout is sombre and sinister, laced with delicate hints of submerged desperation. If the film falls short of any of the promises of its genre — it is, essentially, a thriller — it is that the action is more or less limited to the beginning and the end, when a chase through the shadows of winding cobbled streets picks up where Don't Look Now left off. Still, the film is constructed with such confidence and poise, and such visual seduction, that it is hard not to fall for its charms.
The American is out on Friday