15 February 2009

Movie review: The International

The International (2009)
Directed by Tom Tykwer. Starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, Brian F. O’Byrne, James Rebhorn.

Welcome to the International Bank of Business and Commerce. Please have your passbook ready; we are very strict about this.

My choice of new release to watch this weekend will tell you a bit about my movie-going tastes: I skipped the slasher film re-boot and the chik-flick from chik-lit—perhaps the two most opposed genres you could imagine—and went for the adult-themed espionage thriller. I love this icy genre that gives you a package deal of world tour, suspense, and conspiracy. Today’s thrillers never manage to reach the heights of classics like Three Days of the Condor or Marathon Man, but you still get occasional hard-rollers, like Ronin and the second two Jason Bourne movies. Casino Royale got a taste of it, and the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, tried for the full international-thriller style but loused it up in every way possible.

And what a coincidence: our leading man in The International is none other than Clive Owen, one of around a hundred actors Who Would Have Made a Better 007 Than the Guy We’re Currently Stuck With. Owen has the perfect demeanor and style for this sort of film, and he’s one of The International great strengths.

The other strength of the film is a killer gunfight. I paid six dollars to see The International, and I felt I got my money’s worth alone from this massive shoot-out, which puts to shame 90% of most action scenes from last year, and certainly the ones to come this year as well.

The title refers to an enormous bank, headquartered in Luxembourg, that “controls debt” (according to one of its eventual victims) through pipe-lining Chinese weaponry to various Third World war zones. The IBBC has power every where through these illegal arms deals that put it in control of vast amounts of wealth in developing countries. They’ll assassinate anyone who endangers their deals.

Owen plays Interpol agent Louis Salinger, who has dedicated his health and sanity to taking down this monster bank. However, Interpol doesn’t enforce the law (I’m so glad some filmmaker has finally figured out that Interpol collects information for law enforcement agencies; it doesn’t act as one of those agencies itself), and Salinger has to work with the U.S. Department of Justice and New York Assistant District Attorney Louise Whitman (Naomi Watts). A romance never develops between the two, going against standard films conventions, and I’m very glad for this break in tradition. Just because you have two good-looking leads doesn’t mean they have to go for each other.

The movie rapidly racks up Frequent Flier Miles as Salinger’s quest to nail the IBBC flings us from Berlin, to Milan, to Luxembourg, to New York, to Istanbul. One of the thrills of this sort of movie comes from the location shooting, and German director Tom Tykwer (most famous for Lola Rennt, a.k.a. Run, Lola, Run) doesn’t disappoint with the locales and a combination of street-espionage and the glistening corridors of ultra-modern design.

However, The International falls into the common trap of the genre by losing its focus through too many debriefings and off-the-record secret meetings where the audience lacks essential information to know what’s going on. Early scenes with IBBC employee Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and the heads of the bank are damned confusing, and I think the movie might have benefited more from keeping us in the total dark with Salinger as he tries to pick apart the string of assassinations that point to the IBBC.

The assassin (Brian F. O’Byrne) proves the lynchpin of the taking down the IBBC, and the hunt for him proves the strongest and most coherent section. It also leads to the astonishing gunfight, where pistols and submachine guns shred the Guggenheim Museum in New York into white swiss cheese with a side of shattered glass. The central rotunda of the museum,with its spiraling circular walkways, makes a perfect arena for a constantly moving blast-a-thon where you actually believe the various participants can avoid getting hurt while demolishing the entire place. The pristine white walls of the Guggenheim offer a canvas for bullet holes; director Tykwer uses ballistics as a paint-brush in this scene. The movie poster makes use of the architectural style of the museum, indication the the marketing team knew exactly what viewers would take away the film.

I wondered in the middle of this enormous mayhem, “The Guggenheim didn’t let them actually do this, did they?” No, of course not. According to my friend Brian, the production team built a replica in Germany and smashed that up. There’s no other way they could have pulled it off.

After the gun battle, The International slides off toward its finale. And the finale keeps seeming to step farther and farther away. The movie looks ready to end at any moment, but continues to lurch forward. It’s hard to live up to a smash-up action scene like the Guggenheim fight, but The International whimpers out to a disappointing close.

The film has intelligence, crisp direction, great locations, and some solid performances (I love listening to Armin Mueller-Stahl do his resigned and cool muttering that he does in every film in which he appears; the guy has found his niche), but The International ends up as only an average example of its genre—with one Killer App of an action scene.

Also, I would like to point out that it isn’t hard to bring down a bank. In today’s economic environment, all you have to do is wait.