Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli
Director: Anton Corbijn
Runtime: 105 min.
Verdict: An interesting little exercise in the assassin genre.
Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge) was a rare filmmaker. So is Michael Mann (Manhunter, Collateral). Filmmakers who have created characters who unflinchingly stand by two codes in life – honor and professionalism. Many other filmmakers try it out, like say John Woo (The Killer), but they have little to no idea how to keep mushy sentimentalism from seeping in and making it all needlessly personal, as opposed to professional, and hence melodramatic. I have this great regard for Johnnie To too, and yet I suspect even he has trouble keeping the feminine from flowing in. The great Exiled and Sparrow might suggest that tendency. Filmmakers like Mr. To and Mr. Woo, I believe, reduce the masculine to boyhood, and as much I like some of their pictures, I suspect the tendency is unintentional. Their men might carry guns, and wear overcoats, and carry the coolest sunglasses, and kill people, but they aren’t men. They might be more like the hardboiled detective fantasies of Calvin. Mr. Mann’s are. And among all filmmakers, dead or alive, Mr. Melville’s men are the real deal. I wouldn’t count out somebody throwing in Sergio Leone and opening up the discussion. And I would want to jump in too. But that would wait for later.
Right now, I invoke these fine gentlemen because having these antiheroes usually leads a film to take one of the two routes – (a) either cut out a figure of principles and ethics and honor, and one which most often is anti-establishment, or (b) cut out a troubled figure, a revisionist take on the usual coolness associated with an assassin and his ilk, and still be anti-establishment. Even James Bond, the consummate professional and the establishment’s most trusted man, is rebellious with the way he does the job and so is supposed to be cooler for that. All my life I never did get this disregard for the establishment, and in probability I never will. All I can understand is that it might suggest a tendency of what Charles Forster Kane called the cross-section.
What I seek is a pure and focused portrait of these very private gentlemen, these men of gun, without the distraction that the commentary on the establishment causes. Such ways there’s a certain integrity to Le Samourai, where everybody including the cops is merely doing their job. Roger Ebert and many other critics claim that Mr. Corbijn’s The American is Le Samourai for our times. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, there sure was one, and that was called Collateral and Mr. Cruise’s Vincent is the closest any screen assassin, or for that matter any screen character has gotten to the unflinching composure of Alain Delon’s Samourai. And as for Mr. Clooney’s Jack, one might say what he and Mr. Corbijn are attempting for is towards the opposite end of the spectrum to what Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville created. Whereas every frame of La Samourai is tending for a sense of austerity, a sense of discipline, a sense of calm, underneath every frame of The American one feels a certain agitation waiting to erupt, or explode. To the list I would also add Takeshi Kitano’s masterpiece Sonatine, a real rare picture whose honesty and focus plain breaks your heart.
Yet, I say don’t go by my word. Here are a few portraits of some of these very private gentlemen. It is infinitely interesting how the figures themselves reveal everything about the tone of the corresponding film, and how acquiring certain body postures impress, so very subtly, so much of our perception of the character.
Le Samourai: I admit, I have somewhat of a man-crush for Alain Delon, and for Melville’s world, but then who wouldn’t. Look at Delon’s ice-cool composure, and his perfectly straight posture. Even while sitting, he doesn’t arch forward. He sits back. The perception we gain in an instant of this character by his demeanor is much beyond the words of any thematic description.
Collateral: Alain Delon conveys composure. Tom Cruise conveys arrogance.
The Limits of Control:
No Country for Old Men:
The American: Mr. Clooney’s Jack is a tired man. Tired of his life…a troubled soul…lack of inner peace…and all that stuff. You know the drill. It is funny to see how the character never sits straight.
Sonatine: This is probably the most unique of the portraits, because between the tired and the resolved stands Kitano’s Yakuza who is absolutely and comfortably numb from all of this. It is a remarkable remarkable character arc. I would say Kitano might me the natural heir to Buster Keaton, and if their last names sound so similar, we might have to thank the lord for providing us such a coincidence.
Sometimes, you see, we just don’t give our actors enough credit. These guys here provide a fascinating spin to what might otherwise be a dull routine. Look at Alain Delon or Tom Cruise. Their characters speak so much about themselves. Why do I prefer a La Samourai or a Collateral over The American? Because I believe the former two are more of what I seek at the movies – the masculine. These guys are at absolute peace with themselves. There is no kitschy or cheesy morality to them. If they are killers, they are professionals.
And speaking in the same tone, I could never truly recommend The American, or watch it again (I just happened to watch it once), although it is a beautifully crafted film. There is a heavy dose of the feminine, and the tale of a man resigned to his fate. Everyday conversation would describe Clooney’s Jack as a loser. I would too, because this man doesn’t belong where he stands. He is a man given to mediocrity. Dear reader, please understand that I speak only in cinematic terms, and when I say a loser, I mean this is a character that comes across as one who once dreamt of living the classic movie assassin/spy – James Bond or Jason Bourne – but now realizes that neither is cool enough nor is his morality at peace. This is a man ridden with guilt. Why is any of us ridden with guilt? Because of the simple reason that we have not understood or sorted out the politics and philosophy and morality and principles of our life, and instead are following the morality of the society. The American is one such man, and in times like these where capitalism and socialism and liberalism are getting confused, I think it is pretty neatly titled. And that is that.
What interests me is the craft at hand. Of course, do not be misled to believe that there are any super minimalist shoot-out sequences. As in the words of Kyle Smith, the crew chasing the American is a Swedish one, “whose field manual apparently includes chapters on such advanced techniques as "standing around waiting to be shot" and "sneaking up behind target while waiting to be shot." The opening shot is near ridiculous, and I laughed so hard I almost gave up watching the film. Here is a frame-excerpt, and a running commentary.
Mr. Corbijn first establishes a romantic tone with Jack and his lady friend walking on the snow, and a little melody playing in behind. The close-up in an open snow-land is warm enough.
Next he goes for a rather wide shot from the left. The key is that the shot is from the same horizontal plane as the two people walking, and so it feels as an extended shot of the establishment. We’re still in the romantic mode, so to speak. In cinema, when we watch a character from the same horizontal level from an open vantage point, it usually feels like an establishment shot.
The next shot is the key. At the movies, we audiences always always feel something is wrong when the vantage point is from behind the trees, or from the window, or from any concealed space. I do not happened to know at exactly what point in the history of cinema/television did this Pavlovian reflex install itself within us, but such a shot always always establishes that somebody is watching. And yes, somebody is.
What happens next is utterly ridiculous, and how Mr. Smith describes in his review is right on the money. This silly killer looking at Jack has a clear shot for a long moment (from the tree to the left to the tree at the center), but as is the case with inefficient movie henchmen, he doesn’t shoot. Jack runs in the open for a long time, and not even a silly shot is fired. And just as he hides behind a rock, the stupid gunman fires.
You see Jack standing? The gunman is on the top of this rock, providing remarkable evidence of his mastery in the art of getting shot. Jack sneaks around the rock, and kills him. The gunman drops dead, and I almost dropped on the floor. This is a scene right out of a Leslie Nielsen Naked Gun movie (god bless him), and The American is serious about itself.
And yet, The American picks up the craft and assumes its seriousness quite dramatically. The action within the frame surprisingly pulls up to be worthy of the solemnity Mr. Corbijn almost wants to thrust upon it. In what is an assuredly shot film, the moment of outright command over technique lay in the way Mr. Corbijn uses the night time and the yellow shade to light it. There’re only 3-4 moments where Mr. Jack walks out in the night lit yellow. Quite cleverly the film establishes a tone of danger the first time around, where Jack walks past a man standing besides a sedan – the man already having been established as a suspect threat in a previous frame – and so we immediately register the information of night plus yellow. What happens the next time around, as Jack walks into the yellow lit night, is amazing in the way it gives so much of leverage to Mr. Corbijn in terms of reestablishment of mood. The street is same, and it enables Mr. Corbijn to cut straight to the moment. We’re already aware that this is a suspect little moment. It always pays to frame and edit generously.
Ah, the ending. A gloriously melodramatic one, and yet it is so completely heartbreaking. There is a certain truth in that moment, as Jack bangs his fist onto the steering wheel, and realizes he couldn’t outrun his fate. It is quite amazing how the film and its character are hopeful when some of these films most usually aren’t. Framed in close-up, with Mr. Clooney showing why he is one of our great actors, It is, I say, quiet a moment, and I would have to say I was moved.
Ah, about those opening credits. You could claim all you want that the final credit roll of Mr. Corbijn’s name dissolving into a bright flash of white after a tunnel was utterly predictable, but you got to ask yourself how the hell they achieved that mathematical precision? Sometimes the calculations behind these credits amaze me.