The hitman may be the most overused figure in cinema, particularly in contrast to what hired killers turn out to be in the news stories we really hear about, who are rare and often brutish or sloppy in their work. However, for many filmmakers, they represent a calm, cool and collected professional – a sexy entry to the world of crime. As the ones who get things done, they can also serve as a stand-in for a director, as portrayed in a wonderful bit of satire in David Fincher’s The Killer. But rare is the filmmaker who can do something new with the trope. The early moments of director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego’s new film American Star feel like the film may do just that. But in the end, this is just more of the same.
Wilson (Ian McShane) is a British hitman. He’s been sent to the Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands for a job. When Wilson arrives at the target’s home, he isn’t there, though a young woman is. Wilson calls to tell his employers that he’s staying on the island until the target returns. He checks into a mid-range resort where he banters with Max (Oscar Coleman), a young boy who often sits outside his room as his parents fight or his father snores. Looking for music from “my century”, Wilson is directed to the Mojo blues bar. The bartender there is Gloria (Nora Arnezeder), who also happened to be the woman at the target’s home. On the wall of the bar are various photos of a foundered ship.
Wilson finds out from Gloria that this is the American Star, an ocean liner turned naval vessel which had sold to become a floating hotel before its tow lines broke on the way to Thailand and it ran aground off the coast of Fuerteventura. Wilson tries to find the ship on his own the next day, and when unsuccessful, Gloria offers to be his tour guide. During his time on the island, Wilson is also approached by Thomas (Adam Nagaitis), a younger man who is connected to Wilson’s employers and is also the son of Wilson’s dead best friend. Wilson and Thomas’s father had served in the military together as part of the Falklands War. As the days go on, Wilson and Gloria grow closer. She eventually introduces him to her mother (Fanny Ardent), who recognizes Wilson’s type and asks him not to hurt her daughter. Eventually the target (Thomas Kretschmann) returns, and all of the main characters intersect bloodily.
Courtesy IFC FILMS
American Star is a frustrating film. It starts off very well. McShane is a powerful screen presence, and the focus on the lines of his face and the hardness of his gaze make him feel more powerful still. In the early moments of the film when it is primarily McShane traveling and taking in the island, the film has an incredible mood. Lopez-Gallego and his cinematographer Jose David Montero take full advantage of the beauty of Fuerteventura with its white sand beaches and wind-whipped cliffs. McShane, dressed in a black suit, and wandering these locales while being filmed in odd tracking shots and strange lens choices makes for an easy to sink into vibe. But as the film surrenders to become more plot heavy, the weaknesses in Nacho Faerna’s screenplay begin to show.
From the older man being intriguing to the younger woman with father issues, to the tough man being kind to a child, to the soldier reckoning with the debt he owes to the family of a fallen comrade, all of these things have been done multiple times before and done better. But still, there is McShane. He is excellent throughout, bringing life to these cliches and making the film feel like more than it is. On the whole, American Star is not worth recommending. The last hour drags as the film moves to its inevitable conclusion. But that first 30-45 minutes has some wonderful stuff in it, as does the scene between McShane and Ardent later in the film. As a straight drama with the hitman elements removed and the oddness of the early-going leaned into further, American Star could have been something special. As it stands, it’s another assassin film destined to get lost in the shuffle.
AMERICAN STAR opens in limited theaters Friday, January 26th