Producers: Michael Elliott and Ian McShane Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego Screenplay: Nacho Faerna Cast: Ian McShane, Nora Arnezeder, Adam Nagaitis, Andrés Gertrúdix, Oscar Coleman, Sabela Arán, Thomas Kretschmann and Fanny Ardant Distributor: IFC Films
Ian McShane plays Winston, the manager of the Continental, the New York hotel that caters to hit-men, in the “John Wick” franchise. Now he moves from supporting role to the lead as Wilson, himself an aged hit-man assigned to a mission on Fuerteventura, one of the easternmost of the Canary Islands, in this neo-noirish existential character study from Spanish director Gonzalo López-Gallego. But despite the actor’s undeniable gravitas, even his screen presence can’t save “American Star” from a combination of slightness and pretention.
The first half-hour of “American Star” consists largely of following Wilson as he arrives on the island, collects a car containing the information and equipment he’ll need to complete the hit, and proceeds to the isolated house of the target, driving along roads that are almost completely empty but for him (as seems to be always the case). But on making his way into the house, he finds it empty; it seems the man he’s been sent to kill is away. Before Wilson can leave, however, a young woman arrives on a motorbike, dons a swimsuit, and takes a dip in the pool. It gives him the opportunity to depart quietly.
Resigned to the fact that he’ll need to stay around until his target returns, Wilson takes a room at a local hotel. While walking down the hallway, he encounters a young boy, Max (Oscar Coleman), sitting outside a door behind which angry voices can be heard arguing. Later he ventures out into the city and, after inquiring of a local glad-hander dressed like a cowboy (Andrés Gertrúdix) where he can find a bar with some jazzy music, finds his way to one where Gloria (Nora Arnezeder), the young woman he almost encountered at the would-be victim’s house, is the barmaid. Noticing a photo of a ship tacked to a billboard there, he inquires about it, and she tells him it’s the American Star, an ocean liner refitted for military transport during World War II and then decommissioned. Returned to commercial use, it was being brought to the island, where it was to be set up offshore as a tourist mecca, but was caught in a storm and beached; deserted, it’s gradually rusting out and sinking. Intrigued, he tries to find it, but locates only a hole in the sand; when he returns to the bar, Gloria says that If he’d really like to see it, she could show him the way, and does.
(There actually was a ship, called the American Star at the last point in its history, which was grounded off Fuerteventura in 1994 while it was being towed to Thailand to serve as a hotel ship there. Abandoned, it gradually fell apart until the last remnants disappeared between 2005 and 2007. Here it’s represented by an obvious, and not very convincing, effects shot. But that’s not important, because the filmmakers intend it not so much as a real object but as a symbol of the decrepitude that Wilson is clearly feeling himself. So when it simply vanishes in the waves in the film’s final image—along with him, of course—the point is made. But it was already intimated much earlier on, when Wilson pauses in his hotel’s lounge to listen to a singing duo’s version of “The Final Countdown,” which the movie then solemnly observes. )
Before that happens, however, Wilson bonds with Oscar, who turns out to be vacationing from Wales and to whom he reveals his past in the military (like the ship): he served in the Falklands War off the Argentine coast and was a parachutist. He also connects with Gloria, who invites him for lunch with her mother Anne (Fanny Ardant), a seductive woman who dances with him and eyes him, not just as a realtor (is he looking to buy a house?) but as a lonely widow.
But his idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Ryan (Adam Nagaitis), a younger hit-man sent by Wilson’s bosses to watch over him. Wilson was, it seems, a pal of Ryan’s father in the army and is still haunted by his death in battle—Ryan calls him “Uncle,” and there are suggestions that Wilson and his mother had a relationship that soured—and finds the younger man’s scrutiny of his actions irritating, perhaps even dangerous.
The plot swings back into hit-man mode when the mission’s target Thomas (Thomas Kretschmann) finally comes home with his wife (Sabela Arán) and Wilson returns to their house. But he’s not the only one there: Ryan shows up, and so do Gloria and her friend Cowboy. The resultant melee leaves corpses scattered about, and a devastated Wilson ready to go down with the ship.
“American Star” aims to find profundity within what is really nothing but an “aging gunman” scenario that, in an earlier day, might well have been set in the American West (though, of course, something other than a beached ship would have to have been devised as a symbol of his deterioration); and it really doesn’t succeed. Matters aren’t helped by López-Gallego’s pacing, which one might charitably deem stately, or perhaps desultory—in terms of both his direction and his editing. José David Montero’s washed-out cinematography certainly doesn’t beautify the island setting; it’s after a sense of emptiness and remoteness, and certainly achieves it.
That also pervades most of McShane’s performance. He opens up emotionally in his scenes with Coleman, a cute and expressive kid, and to some extent in those with the vivacious Arnezeder and the alluring Ardant, while he shows simmering anger when confronted by Nagaitis’ smugly confident Ryan. But for the most part, he presents Wilson as reserved, laconic and wary, as befits a man peering glassy-eyed toward his own end.
But as a depiction of existential angst “American Star” is only fitfully compelling. It’s worth considering, though, if only for the opportunity to see McShane at center stage.