A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE INTERNATIONAL jjj

2009, R, 118 mins.

Louis:  Clive Owen / Eleanor: Naomi Watts / Wilhelm:  Armin Mueller-Stahl / Consultant: Brian F. O'Byrne / D.A.: James Rebhorn

Directed by Tom Tykwer / Written by Eric Warren Singer.

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 thrillers. 

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 tooled scene).  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 spectacle. 

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