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American Star (2024) Review

American Star is the latest film from Spanish director Gonzalo López-Gallego whose output has ranged from Apollo 18 and Open Grave to Backdraft 2, a 28-year later DTV sequel to the 1991 hit. Here he and writer Nacho Faerna (The Ugliest Woman in the World, Bosé) are presenting a variation on a well worn theme, the criminal who’s about to pull off their last job before retiring.

In this case, the criminal is a hit man named Wilson (Ian McShane, John Wick 3, Case 39) whose come to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands to perform what should be an easy assignment. But complications ensue right from the start, when he drives out to the unnamed target’s secluded house, he’s not there. Someone does arrive, but it’s a young woman, not the man he was expecting. Wilson bides his time, then slips out unseen, taking note of the motorcycle parked outside the house.

Instructed to wait until they do show up, Wilson plays the part of yet another tourist looking for a discount off season holiday. Stopping into a bar, he recognizes a motorcycle outside and a tattoo on Gloria (Nora Arnezeder, Maniac, Army of the Dead) the bartender’s hand as belonging to the woman at the house.

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The filmmakers seem to be referencing McShane’s character Winston in the John Wick franchise with his sound alike name. But if you’re expecting anything like those films you’re going to be disappointed, American Star is an art house drama, not an action film or even a thriller. There’s no dialogue at all in the film’s first ten minutes, and after that there are frequent long stretches where no words are spoken and the story is told by the expressions on McShane’s face.

Much of that story revolves around how Wilson reacts to this unscheduled downtime, and the way it begins to change him. Becoming something of a surrogate father to Max (Oscar Coleman, Silo, All the Old Knives), a young boy whose tourist parents seem to be spending their entire vacation fighting. Wilson and Gloria take a trip out to see the American Star, an old ship that’s washed up on the beach, and a relationship begins to develop between them.

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After the opening scenes, there’s little about American Star that would remind you that the film is billed as a thriller. It plays out slowly and quietly, a drama about an old man facing his mortality and a realization of what he’s done with his life, and what he could have had under other circumstances.

The presence of Ryan (Adam Nagaitis, Gunpowder Milkshake, The Terror), a fellow assassin and son of one of Wilson’s friends, does add a slight edge to the proceedings but again, with the pace so slow and relaxed it doesn’t build a sense of tension, just a vague sense of unease. You know this can’t end well, but the film seems unconcerned and in no rush to bring on conflict. It’s only towards the end that American Star becomes the modern noir that a plot that involves a pair of assassins and a female drifter with a somewhat mysterious past would have you expecting. And it doesn’t pull any punches, ending true to form for the genre.

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What sets it apart from so many other films that don’t pick up until the last act is this is an intentional, script driven decision rather than a budgetary one. It also helps that the cast is more than up to keeping things interesting, even when very little seems to be happening. That’s enhanced by the way José David Montero (The Hunter’s Prayer, Hell Fest) captures the beauty of Fuerteventura and makes it a stark background for the film’s events.

As long as you know that American Star is a character study first, a drama second and only rather superficially a thriller, you should find it a compelling watch. The strong performances and occasional quirky moments, such as a pair of hotel guitarists covering Europe’s The Final Countdown, should be more than enough to hold your attention.

American Star will be available in theatres and on Digital Platforms in the UK on February 23rd via Vertigo Releasing. It’s already available in the US from IFC Films.

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