The title of Gonzalo López-Gallego‘s latest doesn’t do it any favours, conjuring visions of talent shows and excessively-yowled pop covers. Instead, this is a hitman drama, rich in texture and melancholy, but deliberately sparse in rollicking gun play. To be fair leading man Ian McShane is 81, albeit in rakishly sprightly nick, so the acrobatic bullet ballet of something like the John Wick franchise. in which he plays an iconic supporting role, can hardly be expected. Many will be disappointed by López-Gallego’s pointedly lowkey approach, but it’s an impressively minimalist and strangely moving character study.

Wilson (McShane) arrives in Fuerteventura on his last assignment. However, his target has yet to appear, leaving Wilson in a kind of professional limbo. He takes to wandering the island, meeting people and befriending Max, a young Welsh boy (Oscar Coleman) who is frequently left outside his hotel room while his parents fight. He also makes a connection with barmaid Gloria (Nora Arnezeder), forming something of a flirtatious but platonic bond. It isn’t long however, that other agents come into play and he’s forced back into his professional role one last time.

Ian McShane is wonderful as an aging gangster. It’s hardly a unique narrative, but Nacho Faerna’s spartan script and McShane’s weary charisma sell us on Wilson’s very specific version of the format. He’s not a good person, but he is personable and charming. He genuinely takes to both Max and Gloria, and once a younger fellow hitman Ryan (Adam Nagaitis, increasingly becoming one of our foremost onscreen wrong ‘uns) appears, you begin to get some idea of why he goes out of his way to engage with his new friends. There’s an air of regret in his dealings with the brash, arrogant Ryan; an ersatz paternal relationship that has gone awry. You never get anything like exposition, or much solid in terms of Wilson’s past, other than he was a para during the Falklands, but McShane makes Wilson an unfailingly compelling presence. The overwhelming sensation is that of a curiously taut hangout movie. It also feels thematically feel like a spiritual cousin of David Fincher‘s The Killer, if Michael Fassbender‘s titular assassin was more gregarious but lacked the incessant internal monologue.

The title refers to a real ship that ran aground off Fuerteventura in 1994 and is now an artificial reef having completely vanished beneath the waves. It’s a blunt metaphor for Wilson himself: ‘It’s only slightly older than I am,’ he muses in one of the rare moments of on-the-nose dialogue. Yet it feels an apt comparison, rusty – literally washed-up – and no longer fit for purpose. Yet, beware. As Gloria points out, the wreck has claimed many lives by people underestimating its dangers as they’ve attempted to board. Similarly, no one with any sense takes Wilson’s age for granted. The same could be said for McShane himself, only becoming even more impressive as an actor the later he ventures into his career. Wilson is the opposite of the grandstanding verbiage of Al Swearengen, but is just as robust a presence.

Ultimately, American Star is all about tone. It gives little away, but it’s not about the whys and the wherefores. With unconventional cinematography and an offbeat editing style, it takes the incredibly hoary trope of the weary hitman and turns it into an arthouse meditation on waiting – for a target, for human connection, for death. As an assassin drama, it has more in common with Hsiao-Hsien Hou then Luc Besson, favouring – and rewarding – patience. Oblique and vaguely experimental, with heady tangs of ocean scenery and linger regret, what it lacks in genre thrills it makes up for in atmosphere.

In selected cinemas and on digital platforms from Fri 23 Feb 2024