by Mel Valentin
"The International," Tom Tykwer’s ("Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," "True," "Heaven," "The Princess and the Warrior," "Run Lola Run") latest film and his first receiving a widespread release stateside, is an update (for contemporary times, of course), of the political conspiracy thrillers that became popular after the Watergate scandal in the early and mid-1970s. Politicians or shadowy government bureaucrats, however, aren’t to blame for all the political and social ills in "The International." A multinational bank that engages in amoral weapons deals and funds political corruption across national borders is the culprit this time. Conventional, convoluted, and clichéd, "The International" is nonetheless watchable for lead actor Clive Owens' perpetually vexed (and unshaven) performance and a masterly set piece shot inside a full-scale replica of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.In Berlin, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) watches as an American detective, Thomas Schumer (Ian Burfield), dies from an apparent stroke seconds after meeting a senior executive with the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC), a powerful Luxembourg-based bank Salinger and a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), are investigating for corruption, fraud, influence peddling, and arms dealing. Despite inconclusive evidence, Salinger believes an agent or agents working for IBBC murdered Schumer. Salinger and Whitman become convinced of IBBC’s involvement when the high-ranking executive dies hours later in an automobile accident. Salinger, however, is limited by what he can do as an Interpol agent: he can only investigate and gather intelligence, not arrest or detain potential suspects. For the latter, he has to rely on local police departments.
"One great action sequence does not a good movie make."
Despite his limitations as an Interpol agent, Salinger pursues the first of several tentative leads: a discrepancy in a preliminary accident report. When Salinger tries to interview the head of IBBC, Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), however, IBBC’s lead counsel, Martin White (Patrick Baladi), shows up to explain away the discrepancy. When another lead takes him and Whitman to Italy and a powerful industrialist, Umberto Calvini (Luca Barbareschi), running for political office, Skarssen and his senior vice-presidents, Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Viktor Haas (Michel Voletti), Francis Ehames (Jay Villiers), sends an assassin (Brian F. O'Byrne), to close off any potential leaks or connections to IBBC. Eventually, Salinger and Whitman follow the assassin back to Manhattan, where Whitman’s superiors pressure her to end the investigation.
Long on dialogue-heavy exposition and short on Hollywood-style action, The International tries to be all things to all audiences: a smart, provocative, topical conspiracy thriller and a rousing action film as well. The International certainly deserves points for the topical subject matter (i.e., all-powerful banking institutions), but a murky storyline and even murkier plot points make The International difficult to follow at times. It also makes it difficult to root for Salinger, revealed early on as an obsessive loner with a tangled past, and Whitman, an idealistic American attorney who plays a mostly passive role as The International unfolds. Happily married (with a son), Whitman isn’t even a standard issue romantic interest for Salinger. Instead, she’s an underwritten, superfluous character meant to appeal to English-language audiences. It’s certainly not a role Naomi Watts can look back on and consider one of her more challenging (because it isn’t).
Despite The International’s problems, it boasts one of the most thrilling, inventive action sequences shot over the last ten years. That might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. If you’re familiar with Tykwer’s previous efforts, then you already know he’s an accomplished filmmaker, well versed in the language of film: visual composition, camera movement, camera angles, lighting, and editing. About halfway through The International, Tykwer follows Salinger and two New York police detectives into the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan as they attempt to apprehend a suspect. What follows is a master class in visual style, in shooting and editing an action sequence for tension, suspense, and coherence (no rapid-fire cuts as the camera shakes from side to side). Unfortunately, one good (or actually great) action sequence does not a good movie make.With a bigger budget (and one or two more Guggenheim-like action scenes), a streamlined narrative, better defined villains, and a better developed second lead (a lot of "ifs," of course), "The International" could have been more than a Friday or Saturday night rental, more than passably entertaining during its two-hour running time, but forgettable soon thereafter. As for Tykwer, perhaps he should be considered as the director for the next Bond film. He’s certainly proven himself adept in handling complex action scenes and given a film with wall-to-action, he might just turn in the best Bond yet (or at least the best “Daniel Craig as James Bond” yet).
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originally posted: 02/13/09 08:00:00