Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Movie Review: The International

The International ** ½
Directed By:
Tom Tykwer.
Written By: Eric Singer.
Starring: Clive Owen (Louis Salinger), Naomi Watts (Eleanor Whitman), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Wilhelm Wexler), Ulrich Thomsen (Jonas Skarssen), Brian F. O'Byrne (The Consultant), Michel Voletti (Viktor Haas), Patrick Baladi (Martin White), Jay Villiers (Francis Ehames), Fabrice Scott (Nicholai Yeshinski), Haluk Bilginer (Ahmet Sunay), Luca Barbareschi (Umberto Calvini), Alessandro Fabrizi (Inspector Alberto Cerutti), Felix Solis (Detective Iggy Ornelas), Jack McGee (Detective Bernie Ward), Nilaja Sun (Detective Gloria Hubbard).

Is there any better villain for a movie right now than a bank? With the world in the midst of a financial crisis, in part due to the unscrupulous activities of banks, The International seems to have stumbled into having just about the perfect villain. That it doesn’t really know how banks work can perhaps be forgiven, because no really knows or cares what banks do. They just know they don’t like it.

The movie opens with Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), an Interpol agent and his partner meeting with an informant from inside the International Bank of Business and Commerce (the IBBC for short), a bank that Salinger and has been trying to bring down for years. But right after the meeting, his partner drops dead of an apparent heart attack, and the insider is killed is a bizarre traffic accident. Salinger has been through this before – a few years before he had a solid case against the IBBC, but forces within his department determined to stop him. But he fights on in grim determination.

He gets assistance from a plucky, beautiful Assistant District Attorney from New York, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts); because movies like this always need a plucky, beautiful lawyer to help our hero. He continues to dig deeper and deeper into the IBBC and their dealings, and everything he finds stinks. But no one seems to care.

Howard Hawks once defined a great movie as “three great scenes, no bad ones”, and if The International doesn’t quite get that right, it does contain two great scenes, and a third that is almost as good. The film’s best scene involves a shootout in the Guggenheim in New York, with its famed spiral ramps, where essentially Salinger and the hit man he wants to bring in, have to shoot it out with about 30 henchmen from the bank armed with machine guns. That scene makes no plausible sense, doesn’t really matter. Director Tom Tykwer (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Run Lola Run), knows how to stage an action sequence, and does so with style and panache. It’s one of the best scenes of its kind I have seen in years. The second great scene involves an interrogation between Salinger and Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller Stahl), a former communist who knows works for the IBBC, where Wexler lays out precisely why Salinger will never succeed in bringing down the bank – essentially because the governments of the world need the IBBC to do what they can’t. And finally, the climax of the movie, which takes place on the rooftops of Istanbul, is intense, and brilliantly well choreographed by Tykwer. These three scenes alone almost make The International worth seeing.

It’s the rest of the movie I have a problem with. The film takes a quite a while to get going, as such, I never really became involved in the story. I didn’t really care what happened to anybody in the film. Clive Owen, a fine actor, seems to have slipped in the last couple of years into playing only two different emotions – pissed off and really pissed off. One of the reasons why I’m looking forward to his new film Duplicity is because, from the trailers at least, it looks like he’s finally going to lighten up a bit. What an actress of Naomi Watts’ caliber saw in her role I cannot figure out. She essentially doesn’t have a character to play. The movie jettisons her every time it’s about to get interesting. She just sits around and looks pretty – which she does very well – but I was disappointed that the film never really does anything with her. The most interesting character in the film is Stahl’s, and how he reconciles his belief in communism, with his current career working for the capitalists. Make a movie where he is the main character, and you’d have a fascinating film.

There are also logic gaps in the film. Essentially, the IBBC’s goal in the film is to sell missiles to Iran and Syria, with the express purpose of getting its foot in the sale of small weapons to third world countries that are constantly involved in civil wars. They want to do this not because there is a profit in the actual selling of weapons, but because by doing so; they can control the debt of the third world, and make real money. But banks really don’t have to start selling weapons to the third world to control its debt – it can do that without doing it. Where are these places going to get the money to buy the guns in the first place?

There are more problems with the films logic (for instance, why when the bank is trying to lay low, do they send 30 men armed with machine guns to the Guggenheim to kill one man who was just seen with one of the bank’s most visible executives?) but I could be here all day describing them all. But that’s not the real problem with the movie. Like many good thrillers, these things don’t really occur to you until after you leave the theater and start thinking about it. The problem with the movie is that Tykwer has essentially made one big long exercise in style. His movie doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a finely made film, but empty and uninvolving. So no matter how good he is at staging action scenes, Tykwer cannot save the film from itself.

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