The International

March, 2009, Thriller

Directed by:Tom Tykwer

Starring:Clive Owen and Naomi Watts

This technically polished and visually exciting movie rides the current global obsession with international banking to an overly melodramatic ending which greatly diminishes its impact, but if you’re in the mood for a good dose of mindless violence wrapped in glorious travelogue-style shots of some of the world’s handsomest cities, this one fits the bill…and the wildly improbably but stunning gun battle that takes place inside the Guggenheim will literally knock your socks off. 

Intellectually vacuous and incomprehensibly complicated, International deals with the efforts of ex-Interpol agents and members of New York City’s District Attorneys Office to bring down a financial institution whose tentacles reach from money-market centers in the First World to dictators and terrorists in the Third. Director Tom Tykwer, (responsible for the brilliantly frenetic Run Lola Run in 1998 and the near mystical  Heaven  three years later) runs current heart-throb Clive Owen and the talented Naomi Watts through an exhausting gamut of deadly intrigues as they try to unravel the connection between a banking house whose employees have their manicured fingers in dastardly activities throughout much of the world, assassinating elected officials and bankrolling the overthrow of others by violent “revolutionaries” intent on lining their own pockets.

Owen, wearing the look of perpetual exhaustion he put to such good use in Children Of Men, plays Louis Salinger, a British Interpol cop on loan to Ass’t D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Watts). They’re in pursuit of sufficient evidence to bring down the senior management of a Luxembourg bank devoted to backing illegal arms deals, missile proliferation and other nefarious activities too numerous to mention. The good guys know who the bad guys are, but they can’t penetrate the screen of secrecy surrounding the bank’s actions until one of its employees tries to turn state’s evidence and gets killed for his efforts. One of Salinger’s colleagues dies as a result and the game is on…

Owen is currently one of the busiest actors around; he’s starred in 10 films over the last 5 years and has three more in the hopper. While he may not be the classic thriller hero, he’s a credible one and there’s an obsessive quality to his character that suits current audience paranoia about the morals of banking industry perfectly. He races from city to city in search of sufficient evidence of skullduggery to make a case for the determined Whitman and Tyker has shrewdly cast the cherubic-faced Brian O’Byrne as the assassin who thwarts Salinger’s every move until both find themselves the targets of still another squad of the bank’s thugs who are intent on eliminating both of them in what turns out to be the most dazzling shoot-out since Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday faced the Clantons at The O.K. Corral. O’Byrne’s combat skills put Owen’s to shame, producing an interesting antithesis to the current craze for action heroes possessed of superhuman skills capable of overcoming any and everything that gets in their way. Salinger’s as vulnerable as the next guy;

 it’s refreshing to find Owen playing him that way.

Unfortunately, Watts finds herself in a role of such minor importance that her talents are largely wasted; she spends the entire movie encouraging Owen in his solitary quest while fending off bureaucratic stuffed shirts back at the office. The script largely ignores her, so she’s forced to do as much as she can with the little it offers. An actress of her talent deserves juicer parts. 

In Run Lola Run, the director displayed a capacity for the type of relentless, nerve-jangling action that has been subsequently perfected in such movies as the Bourne trilogy, but Tykwer holds the pace of this film in check until the lethal fracas at the Guggenheim, relying this time on breathtaking aerial shorts of various European cities. He shoots a crowd’s reaction to a political rally assassination in one of Milan’s many squares directly overhead as though it was part of a 1930’s musical, beautifully choreographing his horrified scattering onlookers as though they were under the direction of Busby Berkley.

The ubiquitous Armin Mueller-Stahl (remember the avuncular Russian patriarch/pimp who terrorized Watts in Eastern Promises?) heads a remarkably large supporting cast of nasty villains, plodding cops and terrified bystanders, but the movie’s underlying premise - - that a bank would seek to assume effective control of a 3rd world country by buying up all its sovereign debt in order to control its arms purchases takes the plot past preposterous straight to incredibility. But if you take the time to sit back, enjoy the cinematography and watch O’Byrne turn a cold-blooded killer into a sympathetic victim, you’ll get your money’s worth from this ambitious if ultimately silly thriller.

The verdict? A for effort, B-minus to C-plus for achievement.  

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