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American Star Review: McShane on Hitman Holiday

Ian McShane looks pensieve in the film American Star

In American Star, a contracted killer seeks a vacation in Fuerteventura but struggles to hide from the violent path he has long walked.

He may shop in the same Assassins-R-Us as a certain Mr John Wick, but Ian McShane cuts a far more serene hitman beneath the sombre, all-black suit in American Star. It turns out, even contract killers need a break from the monotony of their 9-to-5, as Wilson checks himself into a Fuerteventura resort while he waits for his target to return to the island. The 81-year-old not only finds a kinship with the blustering winds and undulating hillsides, but also a connection with two local residents.

An action thriller, American Star is not. For those expecting McShane to echo the kill count of Keanu Reeves or lead a Kill Bill-worthy revenge flick, allow this to be your early warning. What Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego (Apollo 18, The Hollow Point) has created is a far more subtle and introspective look into the toll violence and isolation can take on the human mind. Wilson, a man of few words, carries himself with the weight of past misgivings. A man who has long since accepted the darkness, gliding through it with solemn serenity.

While exploring the arid landscape amidst the most reluctant of waiting games, Wilson crosses paths with a welcoming bartender, Gloria (Nora Arnezeder). The instant warmth from Arnezeder’s performance brushes off on the audience and Wilson alike, as the two become travel companions, and later friends. A visit to a shipwrecked ocean liner provides the most poignant moment on their journey, offering a connection between Wilson and the American Star that becomes more and more apparent with each passing scene. Beached, as incapable of changing direction as it is retracing its steps – “Almost as old as me,” Wilson remarks.

In that lies the real message of American Star. Beneath the peaceful exterior, Wilson is a shell of a nearly-man. His translucent relationships forged on the island represent what could have been, if not for his wrong turns. Gloria, the daughter in another life. Anne (Fanny Ardant), a reminder of romance. Young Max (Oscar Coleman), the grandchild that never was. Even fellow assassin, Ryan (Adam Nagaitis) offers a glimpse into what was perhaps a more sadistic, arrogant era of Wilson’s past. Yet despite the ghost-like hints of regret, Wilson stays true to the course, until, like the American Star, he can move no further. The job is the job, after all. He made his bed long ago, and Wilson intends to lay in it.

Nora Arnezeder (Gloria) and Ian McShane (Wilson) look at each other in the film American Star
Nora Arnezeder (Gloria) and Ian McShane (Wilson) in American Star (José David Montero, Emu Films / Vertigo Releasing)

As the days roll past under the beautiful Fuerteventura sun, Wilson grows closer and closer to Gloria, yet never relinquishes the self-prescribed chains of the black suit. After a while, it’s easy to forget you are watching a hitman movie at all, until the inevitable end to the vacation arrives. When Ryan informs Wilson of his new friend’s connection to the target, he threatens to finish the job himself if the 81-year-old fails to keep up. Wilson comes to a reluctant crossroads, with neither path quite leading to his desired destination. 90 minutes of poetic Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego build-up comes crashing down in a visceral and violent climax. Yet, Wilson never tries to be the hero of American Star. In fact, he is more than willing to serve his sentence as the captain who goes down with the ship.

The biggest obstacle for American Star to overcome is somewhat of a self-made one. Once an audience sees those enticing little words of ‘hitman’ and ‘thriller’, they instinctively buckle in for an evening of rip-roaring action and mindless violence. But American Star is far from rip-roaring, and Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego’s vision for the story is anything but mindless. The single greatest decision made by the creators was casting McShane in the lead role, as the British acting legend injects the depth that American Star deserves with poise and sincerity.

For those looking for a gun-slinging, yee-hawing, blood-soaked Saturday night, this is far from the choice. But for those happy to let the Fuerteventura breeze carry them on an enlightening journey with Ian McShane, American Star is a though-provoking movie-going experience.

Get it on Apple TV

American Star will be released in UK cinemas and on digital platforms on February 23, 2024. In the US, the film is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

American Star: Trailer (Vertigo Releasing)
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