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Review: American Star – “Anchored by a strong performance”

Ian McShane is an actor with charisma to spare, as well as being the author of arguably the most accurate summary of Game of Thrones, “It’s only tits and dragons.” He carries most of the weight of this languid new thriller from director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, who you might know from 2011’s forgettable found-footage effort, Apollo 18, currently sitting with 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. That film lacked any big stars, but that was a minor problem compared with its other faults. Having someone like McShane onboard this time does help elevate the work – this is easily superior to Apollo 18 – but American Star is undermined by a lack of clarity, a slow pace, and an ending that is at once predictable, anti-climactic, and unrewarding.

McShane stars as Wilson an assassin working for a private corporation who finds himself with time as well as people to kill on a mission in Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands off the Atlantic coast of North Africa. He’s there to kill a man who is delayed, so he waits on the island for a few days, striking up a relationship with the target’s daughter (Nora Arnezeder). His nephew Ryan shows up. Ryan works for the same organisation. Played by Adam Nagaitis, who was a memorably sleazy bad guy in The Terror.  He’s equally good at being bad and sleazy here and in danger of being typecast.

From that synopsis, you can see where this is going. That’s not to say it’s an entirely unworthy journey. McShane ambles around his hotel and the island looking cool in his black suit and shades, for all intents and purposes like any other bored man alone in a hotel on a business trip who pretends to be a hitman or a super-spy to pass the time (Just me? Damn.) The camera spends a lot of time up close on his craggiest of craggy faces. It’s an interesting place to be. He does a lot with very little. He interacts with a lonely kid in the hotel, goes on a blind date due to a misapprehended effort at match-making, and visits the eponymous American Star, which was a wrecked cruise liner beached on the island between 1995 and 2006. This is one example of the film’s lack of clarity. We know that Wilson was a paratrooper who fought in the 1982 Falklands War. McShane was born in 1942, which would make him 40 at the time of the war. There’s nothing obvious to indicate the film is anything other than contemporary until late in the film when Wilson refers to the war being 30 years earlier, which sets this around 2012.  The American Star had been gone for six years by then. A minor point, but one that highlights a few other inconsistencies and unclear strands of the story. It was also surprising to learn that McShane is in his eighties now. He wears the years at least as lightly as Harrison Ford did in the last Indy movie.

The cinematography is generally fine, though only one scene particularly stands out, with the bright sun shining through slats beneath a gazebo. Sure the shipwreck looks ghostly, but that’s mostly down to the CGI. There’s some curious jerky movement in places but it’s unclear whether that’s camerawork or editing. Some of the soundscapes are well-handled.

Overall though, this is a film that stands or falls by two things: McShane’s performance and the story. The first is great, the second has nothing new. The Zone of Interest has said more than enough already this year about the necessity of dehumanising a person or a people before ending their lives. Ultimately this a passable film, anchored by a strong performance, with a story in search of a profundity it fails to find.

American Star is coming to UK Cinemas & Digital Platforms on 23rd February.

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