After spending a romantic evening in a cozy, wintry cabin in Sweden, a man (George Clooney) and woman are attacked by a sniper. The man takes a gun out of his jacket and kills the sniper. The woman, stunned her lover had a gun, is told to go call the police. As soon as her back's to him, he puts a bullet in her head. Later, when asked if she set him up, the man says she had nothing to do with it.
Five minutes into The American (2010) and we already see this is not going to be like other espionage movies such as The Bourne Identity or anything with James Bond. Instead of high-espionage action and special effects, we'll witness low-key character development.
After his cover is blown in Sweden, Jack/Edward (Clooney) is sent by his boss, the mysterious Pavel (Johan Leyson), to Italy to assist another assassin Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) by assembling a special-order rifle for her. There, he meets a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who senses he is hiding something and Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute. As he goes about his task, Jack/Edward tries to remain detached from those around him but finds himself increasingly drawn to Clara.
We never learn whether Jack or Edward is his real name, his background, or anything else about him. He lives in the moment: burned-out, cold, detached, focused. His field is not one of intrigue and excitement. He must constantly expect betrayal from anyone, anticipate death around every corner, and never feel truly safe. The life of the assassin is lonely.
There are a few chases and shootouts, but director Anton Corbijn films them in long shots, without the frenzied quick cuts of most modern action movies. They're blunt, over quickly, and generate more shocks than thrills. Most of the film follow Jack along his routine: collecting and assembling pieces discreetly gradually, doing pushups, and watching and observing. He must mind every little action because even the slightest inconspicuous behavior can give him away.
The drama of the film centers on Jack as he slowly rediscovers compassion and emotion. His relationship with Clara begins as purely business, but as he develops genuine feelings for her, he grows suspicious about who she really is. A common cliche of hitman movies is how they assassin will do one last job before retirement, but here, that thread, instead of whitewashing an immoral character, feels more genuine than in other features.
I remained invested in The American throughout it's running length. Instead of plot and action, it concentrates on character and behavior, and both aspects were fascinating. It was a nice change of pace from the usual fair being released these days.