Hit-men, thieves and exorcists: Hard work for those who can handle it

by Mark Burger

The American, based on Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, is a stylish, methodical espionage thriller in the mold of Frederick Forsyth and John le Carre, with a bit of Kafka-esque existentialism thrown in for good measure.

George Clooney (also one of the film’s producers) plays the title role, that of an international assassin — sometimes named Edward and sometimes Jack — who’s desperate to get out of the game. Haunted by the past and (understandably) wary of the present, he is consumed by doubt and suspicion.

While hiding out in a picturesque Italian village, the American agrees to take on one final assignment at the behest of his contact, Pavel (Johan Leysen). In the meantime, he establishes a tentative friendship with the village priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and an equally tentative relationship with Clara (Violante Placido), a local prostitute (and the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold). But the American is also wary. Those who get close to him often die, and there’s the possibility that they may not be who they say they are.

The film has a European feel to it, lending the story and its principal character a distinct (and appropriate) sense of alienation. Director Anton Corbijn is more concerned with establishing an uncertain, paranoid mood than providing standard-issue slam-bang action, which is not to say that The American doesn’t have any; it just comes in short, sudden bursts.

Clooney is such a magnetic presence that he commands the screen effortlessly, but this is very much an internalized performance. It’s something of a change of pace for the actor, and he handles it quite capably. He also gets fine support from Placido (a real looker), Bonacelli and Thekla Reuten, the latter as the American’s latest client.

Like its title character, The American is meticulous and painstaking — and also very effective.

Better than expected, Takers takes a lot of heist-movie clich’s and adds a stylish gloss and efficient pacing. The film doesn’t have a lot of surprises and it’s not terribly deep, but it’s assembled with a confidence — and, more importantly, a competence — that makes it an enjoyable diversion.

Elba plays the leader of a group of extremely good-looking and well-dressed thieves including Paul Walker, Michael Ealy, Chris Brown and Hayden Christensen. Having recently completed a successful job, they are immediately handed another by a former member (rapper Tip “TI” Harris). With a potential $20 million take, it’s too tempting a score to pass up — which also means that it’s too good to be true.

There’s also the matter of the two hardboiled detectives (Matt Dillon and Jay Hernandez) on their trail, although they too have their own dilemmas to deal with.

As in most, if not all, heist movies, the problem lies either in the planning or the personnel.

Such is the case here. Takers deviates from the formula — but it’s best not to divulge the specifics in order to retain what surprise there may be.

Suffice to say that things do indeed go wrong, at which point the guns come out and the bodies start dropping. All of a sudden, that good-looking cast isn’t so good-looking anymore. Bullets tend to have that effect.

Takers might have been better suited to a R rating, but director John Lussenhop (also one of the screenwriters) milks as much mayhem as he can out of the PG-13 rating. The likable cast brings conviction to stock roles, although a few of them — particularly Zoe Saldana and Johnathon Schaech — barely have time to make an impression. It’s also nice to see Steve Harris and Glynn Turman here, lending a little extra heft.

The gimmick in director Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism is that it’s structured as a mock documentary (a la The Blair Witch Project), following the adventures of firebrand evangelical minister Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) in the style of what has become the stereotypical, handheld-camera reality cable-TV show.

The good reverend isn’t necessarily a bad guy, but he doesn’t really believe what he preaches — especially when it comes to his (successful) string of hands-on exorcisms — and the main reason he’s doing the documentary, aside from giving his own ego a nice oncamera boost, is to debunk the supernatural.

Well, wouldn’t you know it… his latest request, selected at random from his mail, is to expunge a purportedly demonic presence from Louisiana teenager Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell). So, with film crew in tow, Marcus treks to the backwoods to lend his expertise, only to discover that this isn’t your average exorcism. (Don’t you hate when that happens?) Is Nell actually possessed, or the victim of some psychological or physical trauma? An even more pressing question is how long the filmmakers can maintain this balancing act. At its best, The Last Exorcism has a nicely uncertain tone, and the use of unfamiliar actors adds a bit of suspense. Nathan Barr also contributes an effective score, but since the film is presented as a documentary, where did the music come from?

At the climax, The Last Exorcism goes for broke — and goes broke. The confused (and confusing) wrap-up misses the mark and hampers the film’s overall impact. Still, it was a pretty good ride while it lasted, with good performances by Fabian and Bell, and it’s got enough novelty (although derivative in places) to compensate, somewhat, for its ultimately fatal flaws.

It’s hardly the worst horror film you’ll ever see. It doesn’t work in the end — although it’s been working at the box-office — but at least it tries.

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