Think of “The American” as a cinematic form of bait and switch.
Moviegoers lured by TV commercials depicting a gun-toting George Clooney find themselves watching not a slam-bam Hollywood action picture but rather an angst-y European character study.
It’s like ordering a hamburger and getting escargot. Which is OK if you like snail, but it’s an acquired taste.
Clooney plays Jack (but his real name might be Edward), whose work usually entails somebody dying.
In the first few minutes of the film, Jack is sharing a snowbound holiday with a beautiful woman on a remote Swedish lake. But they are ambushed by assassins and, well . . .
As Jack’s “boss,” Pavel (Johan Leysen), puts it, a man in this line of work cannot afford to make friends.
Most of “The American” takes place in a picturesque village in the foothills of the Italian Alps, where Jack has been sent to lie low, although he does take a job building a custom rifle for a fellow assassin (Thekla Reuten).
But not even a loner like Jack can endure complete solitude. He finds companionship with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and with the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido). The guy’s getting the best of heaven and earth.
Periodically Jack must rub out a killer who has shown up to ruin his vacation.
Director Anton Corbijn cut his teeth on dozens of highpowered music videos for the likes of U2, Depeche Mode and Metallica, but he keeps “The American” low-key. The film is languid to a fault, less thriller than snoozer.
And don’t expect to have things laid out for you. Rowan Joffe’s script (based on Martin Booth’s novel) doesn’t ever get around to explaining why these mysterious killers want Jack dead.
But here’s the thing: Even in repose, George Clooney is watchable. He doesn’t have to say a lot to keep our interest, and he expresses a character’s inner state without actorly heavy lifting. If only there were a bit more juice here, it might have been a keeper.