Friday, February 13, 2009

The International: Bad credit risk

The International (2009) • View trailer for The International
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.13.09
Buy DVD: The International • Buy Blu-Ray: The International [Blu-ray]

Given that big-bank CEOs have fallen somewhere south of Nazis and Islamic fanatics, on the scale of villains we love to hate, The International should have had everything going for it as a slick, fast-paced popcorn thriller.
Having almost caught the shadowy assassin responsible for countless clever
murders, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is horrified to see the
fellow roar away in a car, after first having struck one of the good guys.

Indeed, it begins well enough. The global conspiracy is appropriately sinister; the strings are pulled, Illuminati-style, by clandestine, high-powered individuals with the clout or financial control to compromise any legal pursuit; our heroes are fueled by the grimly determined knowledge that they're pursuing a just and noble cause.

Then everything goes to hell in the third act.

I've long been disenchanted by a certain type of thriller that inevitably concludes when a lone-wolf hero triumphantly annihilates his top-dog opponent, having previously mowed down all underlings. But however briefly satisfying such a denouement might be, it comes with a nasty hitch: If all the bad guys have been killed, nobody is left to corroborate our protagonist's version of events.

Depending on the type of story — if, as often is the case, our hero has operated "outside the law" — you couldn't script a worse finale, since only unpleasant options remain for what happens to this character 10 minutes after the film's narrative wraps up.

Well, yes, actually; you could script a worse finale, and Eric Warren Singer did so here. Having reached the final few scenes in The International, one is left with the inescapable realization that nothing has been accomplished. The heroes have wasted their time, and we've wasted our time watching them do it.

Director Tom Tykwer — still well remembered for the verve of his 1998 break-out cult hit, Run, Lola, Run — seems far more involved with a superbly choreographed shoot-'em-up at New York's Guggenheim Museum, than he is with irritating details such as bringing his film to a reasonable conclusion.

Granted, it's a helluva setpiece — with staging, style and tension to burn, not to mention a clever nod toward that old "enemy of my enemy is my friend" mantra — but it's a weak sequence on which to hang an entire movie.

Honestly, Clive Owen was a lot more fun in 2007's utterly ludicrous Shoot 'Em Up. At least that film had the good sense not to take itself seriously.

Owen stars here as Interpol agent Louis Salinger, introduced as he watches a partner make the first tentative meeting with a representative from the International Bank of Business and Credit, a powerful global entity that has, Salinger knows, gotten involved with shadowy arms deals. Moments later, the partner is dead from an apparent heart attack; not too many hours later, the bank rep has perished in a "car accident."

Once again, Salinger sourly informs Manhattan assistant district attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), a lead that might have helped bring down this bank has evaporated. Permanently.

Salinger, we quickly learn, has been after these people for several years ... leading us to wonder, as we discover just how powerful and all-reaching IBBC is, why he didn't "accidentally die" somewhere along the way. OK, a niggling detail; we can roll with that much. But Singer's storyline gets harder to swallow as it continues.

Tykwer subsequently cross-cuts between our heroes' repeatedly frustrated efforts and numerous meetings between IBBC's five head honchos. The entire scheme is made clear when one helpful fellow explains that the point isn't the comparatively minor percentage of profit involved with arms deals, but instead the resulting destabilization of a country, at which point IBBC can swoop in and take control.

Because, you see, the goal is the acquisition of debt: The bank that controls world debt rules.

As might be expected, that line drew cynical chuckles during last week's preview screening. However disappointing the resolution of Singer's script, the premise sure feels a whole lot more credible than it might have, 12 months ago.

Owen remains a credibly hardened protagonist: the sort of world-weary guy who can admit not knowing when he last ate or slept, and make it both sound and look convincing. And yet he also exudes that aura of nobility that has typified countless lone-wolf detectives since Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler made noir stories all the rage. Salinger is a good guy, and we know it instinctively.

Watts' Whitman is an intriguing colleague: just as determined as Salinger, but more inclined to follow the rules. Only late in the game does Whitman finally realize the absurdity of her integrity, given that these baddies own the people who make the rules. Watts plays the resulting moral uncertainty with reasonable conviction; she also adds a layer of necessary vulnerability, since Whitman has a family.

Owen and Watts are good on camera together, although this isn't the sort of film that allows much emotional depth.

Armin Mueller-Stahl, always convincing as a suave villain, is appropriately shady as Wexler, one of IBBC's aforementioned five top dogs. Alessandro Fabrizi is engaging as a helpful Italian police detective, and Felix Solis and Jack McGee make strong impressions as two Manhattan detectives brought in to help Salinger.

Brian F. O'Byrne is suitably chilling as "The Consultant," the code name for the quietly methodical assassin hired to "solve" IBBC's big problems.

The film's production values are excellent, and cinematographer Frank Griebe gets to shoot all sorts of fascinating architecture in half a dozen colorful parts of the world; the globe-trotting story is as much a travelogue as the average James Bond flick, with Salinger and Whitman pursuing the thinnest clues no matter where they lead. (Their frequent-flyer miles must be impressive!)

Ultimately, though, the entire affair develops the overdone aroma of something seriously overcooked ... no surprise, when one sees no fewer than 13 people — including action director John Woo — sharing producer credits. All of which leads me to believe that, somewhere along the way, The International became less a coherent thriller and more a cynically manipulative product.

All style, not nearly enough substance.

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