Short days on site, nice rental cars, plus room and board — being a hitman doesn’t seem so bad. But a job is a job, and everybody deserves a vacation now and then. That’s what Wilson (Ian McShane) treats himself to in “American Star,” checking into a Canary Islands resort after discovering his target’s residence empty for the time being. A foreign location and senior citizen with a gun can often indicate a bargain bin actioner these days, but filmmaker Gonzalo López-Gallego surprises with an art-house touch, pushing his star into a considered, if also very safe, tranquility.
The director’s most rewarding decision: simply trusting McShane to summon the mood. Now 81 years old, the decorated English actor conveys a wealth of character with his delicate but steady gait, playing a hitman of few words. It’s beguiling enough to see Wilson scan an empty room for signs of life or calmly allow an irate driver to pass him on the highway. McShane has played more than a fair share of tough guys — in recent decades, cussing saloon owner Al Swearengen in HBO’s “Deadwood” and cultured hotel proprietor Winston in “John Wick.” His rich CV adds dramatic weight to his turn here as an over-the-hill gun-for-hire.
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Another classic that featured McShane: Jonathan Glazer’s potboiler “Sexy Beast,” which “American Star” resembles in its crime genre trappings, retired masculinity and especially its sun-soaked locale. López-Gallego gets a lot out of the setting of Fuerteventura — an otherworldly island with arid, desolate landscapes stretching out next to calm, bright beaches. And it’s sparsely populated enough that anybody that Wilson meets stands to pop up again sooner or later.
His most prominent companion is Gloria (Nora Arnezeder), a 30-something bartender with an affable but uncomplicated demeanor. “I like to meet people,” she says as enough explanation for the two to become fast friends. Arnezeder’s performance is warm, but the character mostly operates as a dotty stranger to whom Wilson and the film can attach an appreciation of humanity’s kinder, non-assassination-related capacities.
Gloria’s simplicity isn’t out of place, however, as “American Star” doesn’t develop much further after establishing a few largely symbolic relationships. A key tangent involves a visit to a shipwrecked ocean liner (which gives the film its title): “Almost as old as me,” Wilson mutters upon seeing the boat, putting the obvious comparison into words. Other sweet nothings, like the hitman’s chummy relationship with an always parentless child (Oscar Coleman) at the hotel, also prove too simple as the movie keeps returning to them.
“American Star” largely keeps afloat through its disarmingly precise visual language, built around lovely pillow shots of landscapes, slyly established motifs and more than a handful of inconspicuous but carefully blocked masters. López-Gallego also serves as his own editor, and it shows: He always seems to cut when he wants to. The pristine tempo justifies his tone-poem spin on the material.
As the days stretch on and Wilson lets his guard down, it’s easy to forget that he’s got a job to do. Even Wilson practically forgets himself. The assignment doesn’t cast much dread on the proceedings, even after a nosy associate (Adam Nagaitis) issues a warning to Wilson that his new amigos have some ties to the target. No real surprise there; it’s a small island, after all.
The inevitable turn back to bloodshed arrives at an upsetting, abrupt instant, forcing Wilson back to his professional discipline before he can fully shift out of his vacation in benevolence. After withholding its violence, “American Star” reaches a tense climax, but not an entirely effective one. Once Wilson’s vulnerability has slowly been revealed, his ultimate atonement seems preordained, hiding behind poetic minimalism instead of attempting to reconcile it with his nasty character. Even though he’s a murderer, it simply isn’t asking a lot from viewers to feel for Wilson — a failure of provocation that keeps “American Star” too neat.
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