The story begins when hired hitman Jack (George Clooney) arrives in a small Italian town after a mishap on his previous job. While his boss tells him to lay low and wait for orders, Jack does his best to stay invisible -- but a friendly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) gets the taciturn American to open up ever so slightly. Jack also falls for a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). When his boss finally comes through with a new job, it's to build a very specific gun for another hired killer. As he constructs this new weapon, old enemies make another attempt on his life, convincing Jack that he needs to get out of the assassination game once and for all.
It should be said that The American looks fabulous -- Corbijn has a beautiful eye for composition and can communicate a sense of place. Working with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, the director makes you feel the cobblestone paths and streets of the town, as well as the rapturous majesty of the Italian countryside, and Clara's olive-skinned beauty. Sadly, there's so little going on plot-wise in the movie that there's little to do but study how gorgeous everything looks.
Jack is a brooder -- it seems like a third of the movie's running time consists of Clooney sitting in a chair behind a desk or a table and staring blankly off to the side, lost in his thoughts. Since the movie is based on a novel, you begin to assume that these extended stretches are stand-ins for pages and pages describing Jack's past or his inner life. Unfortunately, almost none of that comes across in the movie. This deliberate quality is unrelenting -- scenes transpire so much more slowly than you expect, which wouldn't necessarily be a problem if it weren't for the fact that they also go so much more slowly than they need to.
For all its faults pacing-wise, it does still hold together. In the last 15 minutes, when all of Jack's problems come to their inevitable violent conclusion, the movie works. But it's a long, slow fuse that has to burn before we get to that explosive ending -- an ending that most viewers will probably have figured out well before Jack has.
The film's languid pace is certainly a mark of artistic integrity; Corbijn and company are purposefully trying to make a serious, intelligent thriller. But while it's true they don't spoon-feed us, the bigger problem is that they don't give us any nourishment at all. No matter how hard Clooney broods, there just isn't enough substance here to make The American much more than a stunning ode to the beauty of Italy and its female citizens.