Glenn Erickson June 9, 2009
Spy and crime thriller fans will find something different in the intense, intelligent The International. Clive Owen and Naomi Watts uncover a complicated conspiracy stretching from New York to China, setting off a chain reaction of murders and political cover-ups. The fast-moving tale is more talk than action, but when the action scenes hit, they’re both realistic and exciting.
The International is the brainchild of the interesting German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and accomplished producers Richard Suckle and Charles Roven (12 Monkeys, Three Kings, the latest Batman series). Eric Warren Singer‘s original screenplay has enough complications for three conspiracy thrillers. Mysterious murders disrupt the investigation of Interpol agent Lou Salinger (Clive Owen) into a shady arms deal. The power of Luxembourg’s International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) is so far-reaching that it can interfere with investigations in most any country it wishes, influencing autopsies and altering police reports after the fact. Lou works with New York District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) to probe the bank’s involvement in shady international arms sales. Personal payback is also an issue, as the IBBC ended Lou’s Scotland Yard career by shutting down an earlier investigation.
The International is a paranoid conspiracy thriller in the tradition of Fritz Lang (The Big Heat) and John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate). Lou races from Berlin to Milan to Istanbul hoping to get a jump ahead of the bank, which seems able to monitor his every move. Witnesses disappear and law enforcement officials are forced to curtail investigations. Screenwriter Eric Singer’s conspiracy tale links African revolutions, Chinese arms sales, and the balance of power in the Middle East. The International makes all of these intrigues seem possible.
The talented Tom Tykwer directs the complex script for clarity and tension. Even better, his superior action scenes do not rely for excitement on artificial “Quisinart” editorial tricks. The best is an intense machine gun battle at, of all places, the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Lou pursues an IBBC hit man called The Consultant (Brian F. O’Byrne, another terrific performance) halfway around the world and corners him in a chaotic three-way shootout on the museum’s unique circular walkways. An elaborate assassination sequence is less successful — even with the complication of a mysterious “second shooter,” we’ve seen similar scenes far too often.
Tykwer and Singer’s pursuit of realism presents Clive Owen as a nervous, stressed Interpol agent, and not a cool James Bond type. They also give us a sequence in which Eleanor questions a contact by text messaging with her cell phone. Screenwriters complain that modern instant personal communications are the death of drama — what if Romeo and Juliet had had cell phones? It’s rather odd staring at a giant close-up of Naomi Watts spelling out little text messages, but it’s a scene that had to come sooner or later.
Thrillers thrive on interesting characters, and The International puts a wealth of impressive and unfamiliar European actors on display. The well-known Armin Mueller-Stahl plays an ex-Stasi General working for the IBBC, who becomes a more sympathetic figure as the movie progresses. Bank chairman Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen) assures an ambitious African rebel that IBBC will supply arms and technical help for a political coup, in exchange for “special friendship” status with the new regime. Luca Giorgio Barbareschi is excellent as Calvini, an Italian politician (and arms manufacturer) who has backed out of a deal with the IBBC. Calvini delivers the film’s main anti-globalism message: The ultimate aim of the world’s international banking corporations is to gain power by putting all of us — individuals, companies, governments — in their debt. As anyone with a mortgage knows, lenders always control debtors. The villains in The International are so powerful that Lou and Eleanor might seem naive to believe that justice and virtue can prevail.
No torrid love affair ensues between Eleanor and Lou. The only hint of sex is a single dialogue line in an elevator — a bite that saw heavy use in the film’s publicity. Whereas most thrillers play for fun and romance, The International takes itself seriously, very seriously. Just a few weeks later, star Clive Owen returned in a much more humorous and playful crime thriller, Duplicity.
Sony’s DVD of The International (it’s also available on Blu-ray) is a sharp encoding of an attractive production — it’s easy to appreciate Frank Griebe’s stylish cinematography when impressive Italian piazzas and Turkish mosques are on view. The clear audio track is a plus in a picture with this much talk — with a little bit of concentration the labyrinthine story is easy to follow. Director Tykwer is one of the film’s three music composers.
Sony has included several worthwhile extras, beginning with a commentary by the director and screenwriter. The deleted scene is a lengthy lift of almost half a reel that includes an elaborate stalking scene, a discussion of “paranoia vs. prudence,” and a visit from Lou Salinger’s daughter (Amy Kwolek).
Making The International reveals that screenwriter Singer based his story on a real 1980s bank that specialized in bankrolling criminal activities; director Tykwer insisted that the timeframe be updated. Shooting at the Guggenheim covers the construction of the interior of the Guggenheim Museum as a full-scale set to allow for the destructive machine gun battle. The Architecture of The International examines the corporate buildings used as locations, giant monoliths that reduce individual humans to insignificance. Tykwer filmed some of them in 65mm to obtain extra clarity and sharp, clean lines. The Auto Stadt looks at the use of Volkswagen’s theme park complex as the IBBC’s enormous headquarters building.
The International is available now from Sony Pictures.
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