Those who believe they’d be happy watching George Clooney do nothing for two hours can now test that theory. Anton Corbijn’s The American is all Clooney, all the time, with the actor in nearly every scene, almost always looking glum. Why so serious? His character, Jack, is an assassin who hides out in Italy after a botched job in Sweden results in a dead bystander. Jack’s boss gives him a cell phone and information about a safehouse. But the killer-for-hire tosses the phone into the sea and holes up somewhere else, weary of the lifestyle and reconsidering his future.
Corbijn’s second film (after 2007’s Joy Division biopic, Control) opens with Jack, a naked woman, and a stiff drink—followed by a burst of violence that rather shockingly interrupts the serenity—and you first imagine the protagonist as a stateside Bond, a sexier Bourne. Instead, this is more like Clooney’s Moon: Adapted from a Martin Booth novel, The American has a whole lot of nothing going on, except for Jack’s paranoia. He reluctantly accepts the friendship of an inquisitive (and, it turns out, quite insightful) priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and visits the world’s best-looking prostitute (Violante Placido). Jack also agrees to one last assignment, in which he must fashion a weapon for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a mysterious and ridiculously well-trained sniper who has a different hair color in each of her scenes. But Jack is suspicious of them all, as well as anyone who dares give him a second glance.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a movie if Jack weren’t occasionally right—but there still isn’t much of one. Ironically, Corbijn, predominantly a music-video director, uses very little music here, a tactic that’s initially mesmerizing when combined with long, artful takes of snow-covered landscapes, ancient Italian villages, or surreally lit tunnels. But, like a soccer game that ends in a 0-0 tie, the silence is eventually snooze-inducing no matter how many different ways Clooney manages to look pained in his self-inflicted isolation. (And, for the record, Clooney does an admirable job with the material.)
Bonacelli and Placido inject some life into the story—the former with the priest’s charm and remarkable read on Jack, who tells strangers that he’s a magazine photographer; and the latter with her hotness, particularly in one of the steamiest sex scenes you’ll see this side of an R-rating. (Spoiler alert: The hooker also starts to heart Jack. But are those D’s deadly?) Even watching Mathilde assemble a gun is more exciting than seeing our hero brood. The American closes on a high note, with an action/sad-face sequence that involves an inventive kill, some Western-worthy sharpshooting, and a chance for Jack to finally escape it all. It’s a satisfying end to the inertia, as much for the quality of the movie itself as the knowledge that your marathon of checking your watch is almost over.
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 Directed by Jean-François Richet
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 takes the opposite approach to achieve a similar effect. The first intallment of the saga of French mobster Jacques Mesrine has already opened with last week’s excellent, efficient, and action-packed Mesrine: Killer Instinct. The story’s second half, Public Enemy No. 1, largely offers more of the same—but it’s not nearly compelling enough this time around to warrant its existence.
Here, Mesrine (Vincent Cassel, still turning in a lively performance) is puffier and even more arrogant as director Jean-François Richet follows the felon into the ’70s. With a champagne belly and pimptastic look, Mesrine spends much of the film doing four things: robbing banks, shooting/being shot at, celebrating his booty, and complaining when anyone mispronounces his name. (And news anchors, despite Mesrine’s decade-plus of thieving, mispronounce his name a lot. We know because he and his revolving door of partners frequently have their identities blown by a TV that’s reporting their latest spree.)
The crimes, with their inevitable chase scenes, become repetitive, as does Mesrine’s cavalier attitude toward—and ability to evade—law enforcement. (When he does serve time in jail, he even confesses to over 40 murders in his memoir, later saying he wouldn’t do anything so stupid if he really killed all those people.) Mesrine even kidnaps an elderly billionaire, just as he did in the first film. His love interest this time around is Sylvie (A Girl Cut in Two’s Ludivine Sagnier), who frets over the well-being of her sugar daddy yet giddily struts around in the finery he’s able to buy her; a jewelry-shopping montage set to, no joke, “Rapper’s Delight,” is a truly low point.
Mesrine’s bravado is so extreme here, easily overshadowing the heists themselves, that you stop rooting for the bad-but-thrilling guy and instead want him to shut up. He gloats when he’s officially declared France’s public enemy No. 1, gets pissed (and seeks revenge) when a reporter calls him a “dishonorable bandit,” and even fumes when Augusto Pinochet makes the headlines instead of him. He wears various disguises in the film, mostly to pose as a cop. It’s a bit ridiculous. A disguise itself is usually silly; a Me Decade getup even more so.
Though Public Enemy No. 1 is superfluous, it’s never so dull as to be unwatchable. And the climax is epic: Expanding on the opening scene of the first film, Richet grips you with a sequence so well-shot and paced that it closes Mesrine’s story with maximum intensity. The only problem? It could have capped an elongated Part 1 just as nicely.