09 September 2010

Flawed Killers

Taking a short break from the art house, I’ve just seen two films that really stack up some bodies—Anton Corbijn’s The American and Jean-Francois Richet’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct.

In the former, there are a few too many reminders that assassin Jack (George Gloomy) is, in fact, the American in Castel del Monte, Italy. He orders an americano at least three different times. When he goes to a bar, he hears “Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano” (more memorably done in The Talented Mr. Ripley). The next time he arrives the bar is showing Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the easiest choice for Italian-American mash-up. We would have known he was an American from how he’s always driving a car alone—Corbijn could have opted for subtlety.

Although such a figure can be a bit of a cliché, I did enjoy the fatherly priest played by Paolo Bonacelli. He is full of insight for Jack: “journalism cannot make you rich” and his extravagantly bagged eyes were hard to shake. I thought Corbijn did some of his best work in framing Jack and Father Benedetto—they don’t often face each other when speaking, but elaborate focuses and blurs keep the eye trained on the pair.

Corbijn never gets the same intimacy between Jack and Clara (who, like all small town Italian prostitutes, is gorgeous and bilingual and keeps a vibrator and pistol in her drawer) because the camera is usually trained somewhere south of her eyes. The fact that the actress who plays Clara, Violante Placido, is Simonetta Stefanelli’s daughter (you remember Stefanelli as Michael Corleone’s Sicilian wife in The Godfather) intrigued me to no end, but I wouldn’t have guessed the relation.

Though many critics have called the film boring, my main regret is that The American wasn’t ponderous enough. The best scenes feature Jack gathering materials and working alone on the weapon he’s been commissioned to build. There was an opportunity to detail the level of craftsmanship, as seen in a film like The Conversation, but it doesn’t happen. Just when we see the mercury go into a tip of the bullet, the film cuts to the bullets being packaged. I wanted to know exactly how the bullet was finished, and how Jack knew his product was perfect.

Elsewhere, Corbijn is superb. He offers a great scene of arrival in Jack’s first choice of a hideout—Castelvecchio. Stepping out of the car in a small square, he silently catches the eyes of three locals, gets three stone-faced stares in return, hops back behind the wheel and hightails it out of town. In another sequence, Jack moves from the red light of Clara’s room to the amber light of the slick midnight streets to the bright white light of his work table—a perfect illustration of a cipher shifting between roles.

While I’ve never warmed all the way up to Mr. Clooney, Vincent Cassel I love. I’m drawn to the barely masked sadism that plays across his roles in Irreversible, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, La haine, Eastern Promises and even the Ocean’s pictures. That he’d already won the best actor César for Mesrine seemed a sure sign the film (released here in two parts) would be excellent.

And yet, in part 1, Killer Instinct, the only excellent thing is Cassel’s sneering visage (especially when sporting the Joaquin Phoenix-as-rapper look). Perhaps because Mesrine was a real figure, Richet felt pressure to include every crime he ever committed. The pace of the murders exhausted me and that’s just half of the film. No secondary characters are developed beyond sight (I learned, for instance, that Gerard Depardieu hasn’t grown old as much as he’s grown out).

As Mesrine racks up a body count, so too does Richet accumulate visual styles and motifs. While the credit sequence mostly uses a (1968) Thomas Crown Affair frame within frame style, it ends with a clear homage to Bonnie and Clyde. Some nice matching cuts do well to shift the action spatially, but the director also falls into some trite shots, like several dizzying 360 degree takes meant to invoke Mesrine’s delirium in jail. Of films I’ve seen recently, Nicholas Winding Reyn’s Bronson achieves much greater cinematographic cohesion, which allows a deeper study of its protagonist.

I might still check out part 2, Public Enemy #1, if the lure of co-star (and WTT favorite) Mathieu Amalric proves to be too much.

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