Universal // 2010 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 28th, 2010
"I do what I'm good at." -- Jack (George Clooney)
As a youth I went through a Frederick Forsyth phase, and my favorites were Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War. Like many people, I admired the books not for their narrative complexity or their stunning characterizations, but because Forsyth brought his journalist's knowledge of the subject to his fiction. Those books have been described as "how-to" manuals for assassins and revolutionaries, and they paint a picture of those men as deliberate, rational, collected men. There are no chase scenes through exotic cities, no sexy gadgetry...just simple men doing a job with all the efficiency they can muster. Unsurprisingly, they were difficult books to translate into films, and although the adaptations have their own rewards I've been waiting for someone to come along and give those books the treatment they deserve. I'll still have to wait, but after The American I know there's at least one director out there who can capture the cold, methodical nature that characterizes men of professional violence. The film is a brilliant exercise for both director Anton Corbijn and star George Clooney, and I sincerely hope this excellent Blu-ray helps the film reach a wider audience.
Jack (George Clooney, From Dusk Till Dawn) is the titular American, an operative used to violence. His latest job ends poorly so he heads to the Italian countryside to regroup. He takes the expected "one last job," which involves building a gun for an enigmatic woman. Meanwhile, Jack finds himself increasingly involved with a local priest and a young woman who both tempt him out of his professional shell.
This is only Anton Corbijn's second feature, and it could easily share a title with his first film, the Ian Curtis biopic Control. In fact, although they have wildly disparate subject matters -- one about a singer, the other about a professional killer -- they both share a similarly elegiac tone and Corbijn's fantastic visual sense. Digging beyond the surface dissimilarities, they both feature protagonists who share an absolute dedication to their profession, and consequently never quite fit into the world that everyone else occupies. That gives each of them a doomed feeling long before anything actually bad happens to them.
I was not the biggest fan of Corbijn's first feature, but I think The American builds on the strengths of that film -- the strong visual sense honed from years doing photography and music video -- but jettisons that film's reliance on the life of an actual person. Instead, The American gives us a portrait of fictional character who is enigmatic enough to be compelling. Jack is obviously competent at killing, and he has the watchful tension borne of time spent as both hunter and prey. We learn little of his background, but from his actions we can see the kind of person he is, one who is worth rooting for.
Anton Corbijn's visual style and choice of material help elevate The American above the typical professional killer movie, but it's George Clooney's performance that sends it into the stratosphere. There are only a handful of actors who could take the spare dialogue and sheer physicality that the role of Jack demands and make it their own. George Clooney has demonstrated time and again that he has the chops to make a character his own, and one need only compare Jack to his farcical twin (also played by Clooney) in The Men Who Stare at Goats. Whether played for laughs or seriously, Clooney takes his characters to the next level, and he really brings it for The American.
The American wasn't seen by too many people in theaters, and this Blu-ray is the perfect way for viewers to experience the film at home. The 2.35:1 VC-1 encoded transfer does Corbijn's obsessively detailed frame total justice. Colors are (intentionally) slightly muted, but blacks are strong throughout, and detail is surprisingly strong for a mid-budget flick. There's very little noise to the picture, and there are no significant compression or authoring problems to be found. The audio is similarly impressive, though infinitely more subtle. This is a film where dialogue, like the rifle on which is the plot hinges, is suppressed. Most of the audio is down to atmospherics and ambient effects. Certainly the dialogue comes through clearly, but there's nothing about this DTS-HD track that's going to shake the room.
The disc is both BD-Life and pocketBlu enabled, and comes with a digital copy of the film on a second disc. However, the main extras start with the centerpiece: a commentary track from Anton Corbijn. Matching the film's subdued tone, the director shares production stories and his vision for how the book's raw materials were translated to the screen. We get to see some of the film's production in a featurette, "Journey to Redemption," which includes on set footage and some input from the creative team. Finally, there are about six minutes of deleted scenes that feel unnecessary.
The American is not a film for everyone. Although it's filled with its own quiet tension, the film has very little action that typical thrillers have. It's also poised in a strange place. It's probably too much like a thriller to get much attention during the awards season, but a little bit too much like a character-oriented drama to appeal to those just looking for a mindless action flick.
Anton Corbijn (like David Fincher before him) has successfully made the transition to feature filmmaking from work in music videos. The American demonstrates that the strengths of his first film Control were not a fluke. The American is a quiet film that will hopefully find a larger audience with this fine Blu-ray. Fans of George Clooney are especially urged to give the film a look because of his performance. Although the film doesn't offer the typical car chases and gunfights of other thrillers, its subtle tension might make the film worth a rental to fans of the genre.
Despite falling for the oldest trick in the book -- the lure of a "last
job" -- The American is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Descriptive)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Digital Copy
* Cinema Verdict Review