Saturday, February 14, 2009


Review: The International
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

“The International” lives up to its name. The title refers to a corrupt bank in Luxembourg that basically runs the world, but the film is a globe-trotting thriller, jumping from Berlin to Milan to Manhattan to Istanbul in a span of two hours. All of these locations are fantastically photographed. To the benefit of the audience, particular attention is paid to the diverse architecture of each metropolis. The camera (overseen by cinematographer Frank Griebe, who shot “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”) homes in on the New York skyline, climbs the towers of a grand Turkish mosque, weaves through Milan's busy streets and painstakingly surveys the bank's headquarters – a staggeringly vast modern fortress of glass and steel. These are the kinds of intriguing, urban/worldly visuals that boost the stakes in a high-stakes cliffhanger, and “The International,” directed by Tom Tykwer (“Perfume,” “Run Lola Run”), certainly looks the part. It's the movie's continuous, self-important, 10-dollar-word chattiness that lowers those stakes considerably and could cause viewers to question their investments.

The first shot is of Clive Owen's face – that super-serious, sandblasted hybrid of Robert Mitchum's ruggedness and Cary Grant's leading-man magnetism. It's a strong, tone-setting opening image because, by now, we know that Owen means business. Whether he's screaming at the top of his lungs at Julia Roberts in “Closer” or navigating an apocalyptic wasteland in “Children of Men,” the UK-born actor does just about everything with fervid, white-knuckled conviction. Here he plays Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent investigating the many criminal activities of the fictitious International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) along with Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), an assistant district attorney from Manhattan. Within the first 10 minutes, one of Salinger's and Whitman's colleagues is assassinated by one of IBBC's cloak-and-dagger mercenaries, but the justice-seeking duo can't prove it. Nor can they prove any of the bank's other shady deals – arming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supporting African radicals, affiliations with organized crime, etc. – because the institution's influence reaches so high that essentially every major government body in the world has a hand in its operations. Whoever gets too close to IBBC is promptly snuffed out, making it even harder for Salinger and Whitman to uncover and expose The Truth, a lofty ideal that hardly anyone else in the film seems to care about.

Like the “Bourne” trilogy, “International” maintains a rather nimble pace by moving us from map point to map point, and the intermittent action is no holds-barred. There's one incredible, whiz-bang gun battle inside the Guggenheim in New York that's almost reason enough to recommend the movie. Shot on location as well as on a massive scale replica in Berlin, the sequence – in which Salinger and a former IBBC hired hand fend off a small army of gun-toting thugs – is arresting, utilizing an amazing architectural space for an amazing bit of filmmaking. The bullets and bad guys keep on coming, video game style, and the inside of the main rotunda looks like Swiss cheese by the end. “The International” has much to offer in terms of what's on screen. Things go south when newbie screenwriter Eric Singer's script starts describing everything for us.

This is a movie that talks at you – a lot – about character backgrounds, about trying-to-be-timely issues and shadowy schemes, about big, philosophical ideas that sound obvious and out of place. Singer's style is a prime example of how not to write a film: it's too much “tell” and not enough “show,” unduly dependent on preachy, pretentious dialogue to tell its story. Owen sells his lines effectively because his reliable intensity could make the Yellow Pages sound important. But the rest of the cast members are not so fortunate; they're endowed with clunky declarations that undermine their talents and the viewers' intelligence. Watts – who I didn't believe could give a bad performance until now – gets the worst of it and does next to nothing to humanize her poorly written character. Whitman is not a person, not even an archetype, but a sort of automated drone who speaks with the robotic inflections of an MSNBC correspondent. Among other things, she blabs about her intentions when they're already clearly defined and she proclaims to her boss that “The Truth means responsibility!,” a flagrant last-ditch effort to milk that elusive ideal for all its worth.

Speaking of grandiose food for thought, Armin Mueller-Stahl – an asset for filmmakers in need of wise, old men – plays Wilhelm Wexler, a former communist-turned IBBC traitor who moonlights as a philosopher. When toying with the notion of helping Salinger, Wexler gives him and us a string of “duh!” ideologies, like: “the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” Is this really the right venue for all these didactic life lessons? People will tell you it is, just as they'll tell you that the movie's villain, an all-powerful financial institution, is the perfect foe for these shaky times. I didn't feel that; I felt like I was being told to feel that. People will also say that this movie is very smart. It is well-researched, and it's involved, for sure, but involved doesn't necessarily mean clever. The narrative requires that you listen closely to see where it's going and then makes you regret that you did. That's too bad, because “The International” is a pretty excellent film...when no one's talking.

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