A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, R, 118 mins.
2009, R, 118 mins.
Louis: Clive Owen / Eleanor: Naomi Watts /
Wilhelm: Armin Mueller-Stahl / Consultant: Brian F. O'Byrne
/ D.A.: James Rebhorn
THE INTERNATIONAL is a new political thriller that has an evil, domineering, and world sprawling bank as the chief villainous entity.
Without a shadow of a doubt, you certainly could not find another
more topical and relevant antagonist for a movie these days.
Forget Nazis (the most easily disposable and politically correct of all movie villains), forget Arab terrorists (the second most) and forget greedy and manipulative politicians and lawyers (both possibly tied for the third best), because the corrupt and despotically seedy International Bank of Business and Credit in THE INTERNATIONAL is just the type of wicked and immoral organization that seems to be an icy reflection of our current dubious market conditions.
How bad are the leaders of this financial organization
in the film? Well,
they launder money, destabilize countries, broker arms deals, sell
missiles and small weapons for good prices to the best bidders (no matter
where they are from) and, even more damning, they willfully kill whomever
stands in their way for economic supremacy.
The bank is the type of omnipotent malicious force that seems to exist
in slasher films: just when you think you are safe and protected, they
lurch out of a corner and slice you up to bloody death.
It seems clear that Tom
Tykwer’s (RUN LOLA RUN) new thriller finds some influences from the headlines (the
IBBC is clearly a parallel to the real life Bank of Credit and
Commerce International, a Pakistan operation that conducted a reign of
vicious terror for 30 years until the early 90’s).
Yet, I think that filmgoers will spend less time drawing historical
parallels with its malevolent empire and will instead become more
engrossed in the film’s globe-trotting suspense, its thrilling and
virtuoso action sequences, and, in the end, will root on the heroes to take out
the banker trash. At face
value, THE INTERNATIONAL hardly breaks much new ground (money is the root
of all evil…got it!), but part of the film’s allure is how it tells a
complex storyline that manages to capitalize on the public's growing
ambivalence of financial businesses and organizations, so much so that
even the diabolical and dreadful acts of the IBBC feels terrifyingly
real and possible. Living
during the last few months and witnessing on the news all of the horrible
misdeeds of lending organizations and their incalculable mistakes that
have precipitated our global “economic meltdown” (sorry to engage in
overused media clichés, folks), I found myself even more involved in the
film’s story than I probably would have if it were released during its
original time slot (late summer of 2008).
Now that it has seen the light of day after all financial hell
broke loose, the film almost attains an eerie and unbreakable resonation
with viewers. Perhaps, in a
few short years, bankers will eventually become the most universally
despised and easy to use bad guys in the movies.
Then again...Nazis are a hard
act to follow.
Beyond all of the real life
similarities, THE INTERNATIONAL also works wonderfully because it harkens
back to a time when movie thrillers were not rife with epilepsy-inducing
editing, hyperactively staged action sequences, and cheaply disposable
heroes and villains that generate very little interest outside of
exchanging fisticuffs and fired bullets. No, THE INTERNATIONAL is one of the better recent examples of
the classic old-school Hollywood thriller, the ones typified by the
1970’s (a golden age for the genre), where their stories compelled
viewers with their paranoia-induced storylines about topical themes,
plucky, resilient, and smart heroes, and themes that involved vast
conspiracies and organizations to unfathomably large for any one man to
topple. I think that this is
why THE INTERNATIONAL fosters such a sensation of unsettling intensity and
pathos: It has all the requisite action and thrills, but it
also has something valuable to say, a rare commodity with modern
Not only that, but we have
the usually rock steady and steely-eyed Clive Owen (the best James Bond
we’ve never had the satisfaction of seeing in a 007 adventure) as the
fiercely determined, physically battle hardened, and never say die hero.
He plays an Interpol agent (as close to Ian Fleming’s super spy
as we will see) that makes it his mission in life to see that the
dishonest and despotic IBBC be brought down and brought down hard.
In a lesser actor’s hands, this character could have been a
cardboard cutout, mournfully at the service of action hero contrivances.
But, with Owen’s impeccably introverted sternness and a pair of
haunting and piercing eyes that are pools into an explosive disposition that
lurks from within, he gives THE INTERNATIONAL a much need level of
grounded believability. After
such fantastic and mesmerizing film appearances in movies like CHILDREN OF
MEN, THE INSIDE MAN, CLOSER, and
SIN CITY, Owen is emerging as one of
our most dependably realistic new breed of film hero: a tight package of
brains, brawn, and brooding intensity.
All of this is on effortless display here in the film.
Of course, saying that this
film is ostensibly just a battle between Owen’s agent and the IBBC would
be woefully simplistic. The
plot of THE INTERNATIONAL certainly can not be scaled down to the narrow
confines of a studio pitch, but I will do my best to condense the
particulars here: At the top
echelon of evil banks is the IBBC, whose soul purpose is to organize arms
deals with the likes of Africa and the Middle East that are frequently
embroiled in small scale battles (small arms sales is the key).
As is the case with most greedy and despicable organizations like
this, every time one soul tries to cross and expose the IBBC, a zipped up body
bag is the untimely result. Yet,
trepid and gutsy Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) and his equally
resolute partner, New York assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (the always beautiful
and self-assured Naomi Watts) decide that it is up to them to take this bank down.
Salinger’s thirst for justice is especially quenched after one of
his partners (in a masterfully timed and shot opening sequence) is killed
on duty. Doctors label the
death as a heart attack, but when the resourceful Salinger gets a closer
look at the body, he uncovers that there is more to this man’s death
than a simple heart ailment.
Salinger and Whitman’s
further investigation into wrongdoing takes them from places as far
ranging as Berlin to Milan, the latter location where they witness the
assassination of an Italian presidential candidate (another well oiled and
Following a couple of good leads, the pair ends up in The Big Apple
itself which culminates in what has to be one of the most dynamically
staged and superbly executed action sequences in many a moon.
With the assistance of a few of New York’s finest, Salinger is
able to corner the assassin in the Guggenheim Museum, which erupts into a
massive and chaotically orchestrated ballet of gun fire between Salinger,
the assassin, and the people that want the assassin dead!
What astounded me the most was the sequence’s sense of complete
verisimilitude: I was surprised to discover that CGI effects trickery were
not involved in destroying the real Museum, but rather the production crew
flawlessly recreated it on giant soundstages in Germany.
What happens during the scene’s 15 minutes is a blood soaked orgy
of bullets and mayhem that is staggeringly choreographed as well as any of
the great gun sequences of the movies.
Even better is the fact that director Tykwer does not engage in
stylistic overkill: he keeps his camera static and fairly stable and cuts
shots quickly to sell the chaos, but not in that headache inducing
queasy-cam style that seems annoyingly all the rage these days.
Marc Forster, at the helm of last fall's visually confusing QUANTUM OF SOLACE, should have had the opportunity
to study this film to see how to successful stage an action sequence.
After this sensationally
realized sequence the film gets even more bogged down with complex plot
issues, which ultimately unfolds with Salinger capturing the assassin’s
handler, an ex-Stasi colonel who also gathers intelligence for the IBBC,
Wilhelm Wexler (the incredible veteran actor Armin Mueller-Stahl), who
eventually assists Salinger with a journey to Istanbul for one final,
paralyzing blow to the bank by catching the CEO of the back in an arms
deal. I won’t reveal more
of the plot to you (because, quite frankly, I am still trying to make
sense of it all), other than to say that the film unfolds and progresses
fairly smoothly throughout, even despite the fact that there is almost an
ungainly amount of exposition and information for even a brilliant
storytelling mind to cohesively convey in a two hour film.
THE INTERNATIONAL is a movie that could have deeply benefited from
a longer running time to flesh things out a bit more: at its current
length, you kind of leave the theatre feeling confused and bombarded.
No matter, because the
resulting film is a thoroughly compelling balancing act of spin-tingling
action, Hitchcockian thrills, and decent character performances.
I especially loved how Tykwer and his cinematographer (Frank Griebe)
make the film physically imposing on an architectural level (they
frequently place the characters in and around cold and polished buildings
and harsh metal structures, which further adds a level of dark foreboding to their
plights as societal underdogs trying to topple an unstoppable economic
powerhouse). The action
scenes, as described, are vividly envisioned and consummately directed.
The performances too add much to the good ensemble: Owen, as stated, is
an unwavering and ruthlessly charismatic force here and is paired well
with the less fiery, but cunning, character played by Watts, the latter
who gives a lot for a largely meager and unnecessary character, one that
is riddled with such ham-invested and overused dialogue like “They will
pay for this” and “We must stop them, or else”.
And then there is the film’s single best performance by the cold
and calculating Armin Mueller-Stahl, who just may have the most textured
voice of the movies (next to Morgan Freeman) who is able to precisely
modulate every sentence and word uttered to elicit just the right chilling
effect. The way he is able to
transcend his outwardly mild-mannered character and find the devilish and
destructive heart of this evil man is kind of haunting.
Yes, there are times when THE
INTERNATIONAL is borderline impossible to follow without taking down
notes. However, there is
simply no denying that the film is a tour de force suspense
thriller that is absolutely striking to look at and has elaborate and
layered action sequences that hurtles past viewers with such a genuine and
polished proficiency (the unspeakably efficient opening scene, the
furiously explosive Guggenheim gun battle, and a final foot race at the
movie’s climax are worth the price of admission).
Better – and more gratifying – is how THE INTERNATIONAL,
despite being marred in convoluted narrative waters, is so superbly
evocative of the type of low key, understated, and paranoia-fuelled
potboilers of decades past. In an age when too many thriller seem sick with Jason Bourne-itus,
it’s refreshing to see something like THE INTERNATIONAL that favors
modest film virtues like story, characters, and slowly simmering intrigue
over constant, minute-by-minute stunts, explosions, and blinding