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I love movie trailers almost as much as I love movies. There's an art to the good trailer; the editor carving out a line here and a menacing villain there to leave you chomping at the bit to plunk down your seven bucks by the time "COMING SOON" appears on the screen. The problem with trailers, as with any freeze-dried version of a much larger article, is that they can sometimes be misleading, especially if the studio behind the film wants to convince you that a film is one thing ("The laff-out-loud comedy event of the season!") when it's actually another ("old people dying picturesquely while griping at each other").
Which brings us to the new George Clooney film, "The American." Watch any of the various trailers released for the film, and you'd think it's Clooney Does James Bond, featuring ol' George aiming his loin-melting eyes down the sights of a sniper rifle, shooting from a racing motorbike with a silenced pistol, and being stalked by menacing killers. Yes, all that stuff is in there, but it's not the whole story by a long shot.
Clooney plays Jack, a mysterious gun-for-hire whose history is never really explained. The film opens on the shores of a frozen lake in Sweden, with Jack sharing a quiet fireside with a woman who is apparently his girlfriend. Things go bad, however, when they go walking on the frozen lake, and a sniper takes a shot at them from the trees. Jack dispatches him quickly and efficiently. Given that it's so early in the movie, it's less of a spoiler and more of a description of character that, when his girlfriend turns to go phone the police at Jack's insistence, he calmly stands and shoots her in the back of the head.
From there, Jack goes to Italy to lie low, sure a group of "Swedes" (again, never explained) are on his tail. There, he accepts a job from a beautiful female assassin: build a compact sniper rifle/silencer combo that can be broken down and hidden in a small attache case. In the month it takes to build the gun, he reads books on butterflies (he's also got one tattooed between his shoulder blades, and identifies most species on sight), strikes up a friendship with the local priest, and slowly falls in love with a prostitute he frequents, even as he tries to push her away in order to maintain his lone-wolf lifestyle.
Though "The American" turns out to be a fine movie, with a careful and subtly nuanced performance by Clooney, it's probably going to wind up pleasing nobody. I walked into the theater expecting something akin to "The Bourne Identity," so it took me awhile to spring my mind out of KABOOM Mode and get into the idea that it's really a character study. Yes, Clooney's Jack is a horrendously dangerous man. He can kill with his bare hands (as he does at least once in the film). He murders a seemingly innocent woman in cold blood before the opening credits. He makes a deadly and illegal machine — along with mercury-tipped bullets, which sound fantastically awful — then sells it to dangerous people without even asking what they plan to do with it. But "The American" is less about a killer of killers, and more about how dreadfully lonely it would be to exist as a person like Jack, a man haunted by all the blood on his hands whose survival depends on the idea that he can trust exactly no one.
While that makes for an absolutely fascinating bit of acting in Clooney's hands, the downfall of "The American" is that it has too much gunplay for audiences who want a character study, and too much character study for audiences looking for gunplay. That's a shame, but kind of expected. Acceptance of moral complexity in film isn't most people's strong suit.