There are many types of movies about people who deal in death to make a living. There’s the cold blooded killer story, the revenge drama and even comedic takes on killing for fun and profit. Assassins can be men, women, children and even robots.
In this week’s The American George Clooney plays another kind of murder engineer, the troubled, introspective assassin. There are as many kinds of cinematic killers as there are kinds of weapons for them to use.
Here’s a look back at the philosophies of some of the screen’s most memorable death merchants.
Charles Bronson, as the skilled slayer in The Mechanic (soon to be remade with Jason Statham and Ben Foster), teaches his young protégé, played by Jan-Michael Vincent, some basic hitman lessons. “Murder is only killing without a license,” he says, adding that when you shoot someone do it right. “You always have to be dead sure. Dead sure or dead.”
That’s key killer advice, but slow down, there is a progression to becoming a hitman. In The Professional Leon (Jean Reno) details the system. “The rifle is the first weapon you learn how to use,” he says, “because it lets you keep your distance from the client. The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client. The knife, for example, is the last thing you learn.”
Along the way movie assassins also learn that relationships are verboten. Remember what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie)? “Your aim’s as bad as your cooking sweetheart,” taunts John to Jane, “and that’s saying something!”
Day of the Jackal’s would-be Charles de Gaulle assassin (Edward Fox) adds, “In this work you simply can’t afford to be emotional,” although sometimes feelings inevitably get in the way. Just ask Prizzi’s Honor’s Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) who memorably said, “Do I ice her? Do I marry her?”
Once they’ve learned the ropes, one question remains: Why do movie assassins kill?
Max Von Sydow plays one of the great movie killers in Three Days of the Condor, Sydney Lumet’s classic story of conspiracies and murder. His reasoning for doing what he does is chillingly simple. “The fact is, what I do is not a bad occupation,” he says. “Someone is always willing to pay.” The Matador’s Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) agrees, “My business is my pleasure,” he said.
George Clooney likes to flip flop between commercial fare like “Oceans Eleven” and edgier, more artistically satisfying work like “The Good German.” I suppose the interesting pay cheques from the less interesting movies are balanced by the artistic satisfaction he gets from the artier films. His new film, “The American,” is firmly in artistic satisfaction category… except that it is unlikely to truly satisfy an audience.
Clooney is in anti-hero mode, playing a gun doctor, a man who makes specialized weapons for assassins. Holed up in a small Italian town he’s hiding from Swedish hit men as he builds a gun for a mysterious killer. He’s a loner by nature and necessity but a spiritual crisis and his weakness for women are giving him second thoughts about his life.
“The American” isn’t the usual kind of assassin movie. This isn’t like the 1995 Sylvester Stallone / Antonio Banderas cheesefest “Assassins”—Stallone hid a gun in arm cast!—or the heart pumpingly tense “Day of the Jackal.” No, this is a sleek and introspective Euro flavored thriller. Actually thriller is too strong a word. This is one long slow burn. To suggest that “The American” has a slow build, story wise, is an understatement along the lines of saying that Justin Bieber has pretty hair. Simple words like “slow build” and “pretty” don’t do it justice.
This is a longish, leisurely paced look at the isolated life of someone who trades in death for a living. It’s more about the character than the action, and while Clooney hands in a controlled performance, for the movie to really work you have to care about the main character, but even in Clooney’s ultra charismatic hands the ruthless, troubled man is not likeable. The film’s cold, detached style—for instance director Anton Corbijn uses lots of landscape and wide shots to accentuate Clooney’s isolation—may have something to do with us never warming to the situation or the characters, but I think it has more to do with the movie’s lack of momentum.
The movie plods along, and when there is an action scene, which isn’t very often, they aren’t nearly as breathless as they should be. Corbijn, who hit a home run with his last film, the Joy Division biopic “Control,” has made a stylish movie—great attention has been paid to the look of every frame—the problem is, often there is nothing happening in the frame. It’s a movie about introspection, and so the choice not to include the usual assassin movie chase scenes etc was possibly the right one, but the pay off isn’t big enough to justify the running time.
“The American” is a beautiful movie to look at, but like a lovely vase, it is empty inside.