International, The: Tom Tykwer’s Political Thriller Starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts

The timing is right for a thoughtful and gripping political thriller such as Tom Tykwer’s “The International,” which deals with the relevant issue of the interconnectedness between terrorism, wars, and arms supplies and the financial institutions that are behind such complex machinations.

 

But, alas, “The International” is a middling feature, which, despite being globetrotting and visually pleasing, is disappointing as far as engaging narrative, captivating characters, and real tension and suspense are concerned.  The words routine and mechanical may be too harsh to describe this ambitious picture, but sadly it is not a satisfying experience on any level.

 

Receiving its world premiere as opening night of the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, this international co-production, with a large German input, will be released by Sony stateside February 13.  The film’s European settings, German director and crew, and overall style suggest stronger commercial performance outside the U.S.

 

The film boasts an international cast, headed by Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, and best of all Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the most cynical, savvy, and interesting character in a scenario, which is convoluted in terms of ideas and subplots, but not really dramatically or emotionally engaging.

 

The best element of “The International” is its ideologically relevant plot, in which the banks are the real villains, as if the filmmakers could predict President Barack Obama’s recent attacks and measures against Wall Street, and by implication, the world’s economic institutions. Since the movie has been in the works for at least two years, some of it is sheer luck, but give credit where it’s due, and the filmmakers show good instincts to what one of my teachers used to describe as “a nose for stories torn from the headlines.”

 

The narrative premise of tyro scribe Eric Warren Singer is intriguing: Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Owen) and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Watts) are determined to bring to justice one of the world’s most powerful and corrupt banks.   Singer based his script on the scandals of the Bank of Credit and Commercial International, a Pakistani institution whose agenda involved money laundering, arms dealing and financing of rebel armies and various terrorists for almost three decades, from the 1970s until its demise in 1991. But the under-whelming scenario does not capture the complex myriad of activities (legal and illegal, political and financial) involved in these risky and dangerous processes.

 

The IBBC, the fictional bank in this story, is run by elegantly dressed execs, who speaks two or three languages and drive fancy cars.  Their sleek offices are in Luxembourgy, where they conduct business ia quiet, dispassionate way.  Their decision-making involves financing Israel’s expensive missile energies, and at the same time brokering anti-missile weapons sales among Israel’s enemies.  Occasionally, they order with no big sweat and little blood the execution of a high-level politician, CIA agent, and even ordinary citizens.

 

In the movie, Salinger and Whitman follow the money from Berlin to Milan to New York and finally to Istanbul, where the story ends in a breathtaking chase and a Western-like shootout on a roof, except that this confrontation is not guided by any of that genre’s morals or mores; it’s just as cold-blooded as the rest of the film’s actions. 

 

The event that catapults the drama into suspenseful action is a familiar one. Agent Salinger accidentally witnesses in Berlin how one of his peers collapses and dies on the street.  What appears to be an accident soon proves to be a calculated murder, when Salinger realizes that the  man was murdered after unveilinga deal for a missile guidance system involving China. Joining forces, for no apparent or explained reason, Salinger and Eleanor find themselves in a high-stakes chase across the world.  Their tenacity puts their own lives at risk as their nemesis continues to finance terrorists and wars all over the map. 

 

Thematically, once again we have a solitary, enigmatic hero with a chip on his shoulder, whose actions are motivated less by manifest ideology than a need for redemption for a bad error he had committed in the past.  And again, in the manner of 1970s paranoid thrillers, “The International” pits little, ordinary people against huge, seemingly impersonal forces, suggesting that these days, all humans are just pawns, lacking any say or control over their fates in a world dominated by big multinational corporations.

 

Though the text is rather shallow and ultimately not really thought provoking, it’s still based on intelligent ideas. The subtext is truly scary, when we realize how greedy international banks with deep pockets possess financial and political tentacles that reach into all of the world’s governments and power elites, from Israel and Iran in the Middle East to China and other Asian countries to Eastern and Western Europe to the U.S. 

 

Taking advantage of the growing need for sophisticated, state-of-the-art weaponry, the banks control various terrorist and anti-terrorist wars across the globe.  Their far-reaching actions have effects on our everyday lives in the way we live, work, and raise families.  It’s too bad that the film pays only a lip service to its protagonists’ personal lives.  There’s one reference to Eleanor’s family life, with one brief scene that depicts her husband and child while she works late into the night.

 

The issue of accountability features prominently in the yarn, and in its good moments, the film is effective at showing how business has developed into a global empire of a few cold-blooded corporations, which are headed by irresponsible and irresponsive execs, because they are not elected but appointed. 

 

Jonas Skarssen (Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) is the head of the bank Salinger and Whitman pursue, a man who has risen to the top of his game to run a vast organization with few close associates. Impervious to issues of immorality, this elite of financial wizards move money, people and governments around from the IBBC’s modern glass boardroom as though strategizing their next chess move.  They are depicted as cunning and dangerous tacticians, coolly detached from the repercussions of the bank’s operations, based on the knowledge that money creates debt, and debt leads to power and influence. 

 

In contrast, Wilhelm Wexler  is from an older generation, and a loner amongst Skarssen’s confidantes.  A former Stazi agent from East Germany, he is more complex than his colleagues at the bank and difficult to read.  A ruthless killer, he organizes assassinations but he’s also the film’s most fascinating monster, in large measure a result of Armin Mueller-Stahl’s strikingly poignant, highly ambiguous performance.

Brían F. O’Byrne plays the film’s mysterious assassin, who’s referred to as “the Consultant,” a man who works alone and is physically unremarkable.  Utterly enigmatic, we never see where or how “the Consultant” lives; he exists in this netherworld like a shadow.  An invisible man who blends with his surroundings, he possesses professional skills in dmand.

 

Narratively and stylistically, “The International” will suffer from inevitable comparisons with the popular “Bourne” franchise, whose three chapters have been directed with great panache by Doug Liman and Paul Greengarss.  The latest James Bond flicks, “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace,” also have become too similar to, or indistinguishable from, the Bourne film series, which won’t help the commercial prospects of Tykwer’s actioner.

 

What has happened to Tykwer, who showed talent in his 1998 dynamically shot (if not too deep) “Run Lola Run.” After making waves with this low-budget feature, which became an international hit, he has helmed mostly mediocre enterpirses like “Heaven” and “Perfume.”  In “The International,” Tykwer sedlom achieves the right tempo for the plot, which is either too frantic (in its action set-pieces) or too slow and deliberate (in its dialoge sequences).

 

With appearances in “Children of Men” and “Shoot ‘Em Up,” Clive Owen is quickly becoming one of the most prominent action stars around.  Like Daniel Craig in his Bond roles, Owen represents a new type of hero or anti-hero, a charismatic actor who’s good-looking but not glamorous, suave or cool in the way that Steve McQueen, Sean Connery and Paul Newman were in their heyday.  In this picture, he’s able to again display his world-weariness, infusing his character with an appealing combination of loneliness, roughness, and sensitivity, but he is defeated by a banal dialogue and a role that lacks in-depth in motives and attitudes.

 

Though getting star billing, Watts basically plays a supporting role and a disappointing one at that.  With deglamorized looks (and unbecoming long blonde hair), Watts’ Eleanor is given nothing interesting to say or to do. 


Visually, with all the excitement of seeing magnficent vistas, Tykwer falls victim to repetitive patterns.  East segment begins in the same way, an overhead shot of Istanbul or Milan or New York, before fetting closer into the action.

That said, one set-piece, set in New York’s famed Guggenheim Museum, is impressively staged and executed, giving the stagnating yarn a much needed shot in the arm.  Never mind that the scene takes too long and doesn’t follow much logic; it’s still thrilling to watch.  Shot on a soundstage in Germany, the sequence, like its physical seeting, functions as dynamic art work itself. Tykwer and his regular cinematographer take full advantage of Frank Lloyd Wright’s angular architecture, long corridors, and high ceiling in orchestrating a bloody shoot-out, while innocent visitors burst into panic and gysteria.

(Reducing Gothamn’s famous landmarks and monuments to rubble has become a convention, almost a cliche, in American actioners, and the relish with which it is done calls for an explanation, but I leave this job to my Freduian psychologist-colleagues).

 

Cast

 

Louis Salinger – Clive Owen
Eleanor Whitman – Naomi Watts
Wilhelm Wexler – Armin Mueller-Stahl
Jonas Skarssen – Ulrich Thomsen
The Consultant – Brian F. O’Byrne
Detective Bernie Ward – Jack McGee
Detective Iggy Ornelas – Felix Solis
Detective Gloria Hubbard – Nilaja Sun
Ahmet Sunay – Haluk Bilginer
New York D.A – James Rebhorn
Inspector Alberto Cerutti – Alessandro Fabrizi
Umberto Calvini – Luca Giorgio Barbareschi
Martin White – Patrick Baladi
Francis Ehames – Jay Villiers

Credits

 

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with Relativity Media, of an Atlas Entertainment production, a Rose Line Prods. and Siebente Babelsberg Film co-production.

Produced by Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Lloyd Phillips.

Executive producers, Alan G. Glazer, Ryan Kavanaugh.

Co-producers, Gloria Fan, Henning Molfenter, Carl L. Woebcken, Christoph Fisser.

Directed by Tom Tykwer.

Screenplay, Eric Warren Singer.
Camera: Frank Griebe.

Editor: Mathilde Bonnefoy.

Music, Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil.

Production designer: Uli Hanisch; supervising art director, Kai Karla Koch; art directors, Sarah Horton, Luca Tranchino; set designers, Bettina Lessnig, Marcus Goeppner, Stephen Bream; set decorator, Simon Boucherie.

Costume designer, Ngila Dickson.

Sound: Ed Cantu; supervising sound editor, Frank Kruse; re-recording mixer, Matthias Lempert.

Visual effects supervisor: Viktor Muller; visual effects, UPP Prague; special effects supervisor, Gerd Feuchter.

Stunt coordinator: Glenn Boswell.

Assistant director: Sebastian Fahr-Brix.

Second unit director/camera: John Mahaffie.

Casting: Francine Maisler. 

 

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 119 Minutes