The American

This is proof that cinematic greatness is earned, not bought.

"Everything I've done, I've had good cause to do," says Jack, a hit man played by George Clooney, in the new movie from the photographer-director Anton Corbijn (his first film was Control, the 2007 biopic of Joy Division's Ian Curtis). But what possible cause could there have been to make a film as flamboyantly bad as The American? For its leading man, the role of Jack must have represented a chance to move out of Cary Grant's shadow and into Steve McQueen's. The opening scene certainly demands behaviour of him that sits unhappily with his nurturing persona: he has to shoot an innocent person in the back of the head. That sort of thing would have suited McQueen like an azure tie. But when Clooney does it, it's like watching Goldie Hawn drowning puppies.

After surviving an ambush in Sweden, Jack goes to ground in the Abruzzo region of Italy to await his next assignment. He takes a room in Castel del Monte, where he pursues a frugal lifestyle of shirtless pull-ups and brooding by lamplight. In public, he walks purposefully, throwing suspicious glances in a manner that screams: "I am an assassin. Please do not approach me." Despite this surliness, he is befriended by Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). "You are an American," the priest tells Jack. "You think you can escape history. You live for the present." In this light, it's tempting to read the film as a metaphor for the discredited international standing of the US, with Jack as the consummate American, alone in the world and defined by violence. The film-makers try to convey kinship between the ascetic killer and the fallible priest. Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, gives them some textbook banter on the matter of sin ("I don't think God is interested in me, Father"), while Corbijn frames the actors in a Persona shot, which constructs a single visage from the opposing halves of each man's face.

Borrowing from Ingmar Bergman in your second movie is fairly conceited. But then, Corbijn is not too shy to quote from the greats and the quite goods. The picture recalls another existentialist European mystery with an American star, Antonioni's The Passenger, as well as Jim Jarmusch's studies of assassin angst, Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai and The Limits of Control. At least Jarmusch allowed for humour, even silliness. The American lunges instead for a gravitas that it hasn't earned. Like Oasis imagining that they could go directly to being the Beatles with one album, Corbijn doesn't seem to realise that it took Berg­man and Antonioni many years and many films and knock-backs to become Bergman and Antonioni.

Beneath its European posturing, The American has a softness that is very, well, American. Even without the shot of Jack driving towards
a light at the end of a tunnel, his spiritual salvation is guaranteed. Sure enough, redemption comes in the form of a beautiful donkey, which he rescues from the wild, rears by hand on beans and pulses and enters into Abruzzo's historic beasts of burden contest, where its touching victory finally brings him contentment and closure.

All right, I made that up. Please forgive me. It's just that I couldn't bear to write the terrible truth, which is that Jack is saved by his love for
a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), who has a good heart and no venereal diseases or track marks. Sentimentality about prostitution is not an exclusively American failing. Fellini, in Nights of Cabiria, and G W Pabst, in Diary of a Lost Girl, did their share of sugaring the pill, but nothing of the order of The American, which can hold its own alongside Pretty Woman as a recruitment film for sex workers.

The movie's disastrous mix of the po-faced and the photogenic is distilled in the presence of Clooney. The actor smiles only once, a full hour into the picture, but playing mean should be about more than sulking. Try as he might, he can't shake his adman slickness; the stench of Nespresso, Martini, Honda and the other brands for which he has sold himself sticks to him like the sweet smoke of luxury cigars. (He'd probably plug those, too, if it were still ­allowed.) The nicest thing you could say about the cast is they don't distract from the scenery. That includes Clooney. He may be expensively varnished wood - but he's still wood.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo