The International (2009) / Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running time: 118

Cast: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin-Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, Brian F. O'Byrne, Michel Voletti
Tom Tykwer
Screenplay: Eric Warren Singer
Review published December 25, 2009

The International benefits from a timely theme of banks run amok with greed at the expense of the rest of humanity in a year where they truly have, albeit for different reasons. This isn't about a bank failing, but rather, one that is very much succeeding, thanks to its windy roots getting into the business of anything it deems profitable, including spurring on wars in order to reap rewards from the debt that wars create.  It's a rather dour, but increasingly realistic portrayal of how war has become a business, and one that corporations generously profit from, at the expense of human lives. 

Clive Owen (Shoot Em Up, Children of Men) stars as Interpol agent Louis Salinger, currently tasked to get the goods on one of the world's largest banks, who are storied to be getting involved in controlling alarge percentage of the small arms business.  When we first meet him, it's after they've turned a key insider to provide them evidence, but the results never come in, as the agent involved is assassinated in a manner that even autopsies can't detect the foul play of. Shortly after, the insider is involved in a fatal car accident.  Witnesses abound, but whenever they talk to the authorities, they soon die mysteriously before they become a problem.  Salinger is working in cooperation with the American authorities, represented by New York Assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Watts, The Painted Veil), who wants to see the bank brought to justice as much as the international investigators. 

The International will not be to everyone's liking, as it deals mostly with international events, and though there are some action sequences, they take a decidedly 1970s thriller attitude toward their presentation, involving assassinations, foot chases, and low-tech espionage.  The film is set up as a commentary on the current state of moral ambiguity involved in the corporate world we all live in, where a conglomerate's many entanglements offer many protections, as nearly everything is tied up in a major bank in some form or fashion.  Their international status also makes these companies very difficult to bring to justice, especially as they have far deeper pockets to protect themselves than any entity coming after them. 

Although blessed with good actors, there is still a certain stale quality to the story that makes for a less-than-completely scintillating premise, further compounded by the fact that Owen and Watts, while individually fine and appealing actors, somehow make for a bland on-screen pairing.  One can even make the case that Watts' character serves very little purpose at all, save perhaps to give the studio one more big name to put on the marquees.  This is really Tom Tykwer's (Perfume, Paris I Love You) showcase, and what the film lacks in terms of exciting and novel plotlines, it makes up for with the director's more realistic approach to the action, where the hero can get hurt, characters aren't always living or dying on cue, and one bullet isn't enough to kill every nameless henchman instantly.    A lengthy shootout in a very convincing replica of New York's Guggenheim Museum provides the film's greatest show stopping spectacle.

Perhaps the most commercial of Tom Tykwer's films, he does a commendable job in knowing what will work and what doesn't, sidestepping flash and style in favor of letting the plot and story unfold at its own pace.  The script by first-timer Eric Warren Singer is refreshing in that it doesn't go for the Hollywood clichés of having its investigators making outlandishly serendipitous discoveries to go from one set of clues to the next.  The duo stumble their way through, meeting every success with an equal portion of failure.  We, the audience, often see much more than they do, and can see how difficult it is to do investigative work in an environment where everyone fears for their lives and that of their families when the long arms of the bank extend to nearly every corner of the globe.

The International isn't a thrill ride in the modern espionage flick sense, so keep expectations of The Bourne Identity at bay.  It is a throwback paranoid thriller with more modern sensibilities, carrying a message that there are major forces at play that aren't readily apparent behind the world's major events, with money the root of nearly every evil.  People aren't important, and even those who profit are as expendable as the rest, only around so long as they serve and protect the bank's interests.  And where there's money, the beast we call international corporations will wind their insidious tentacles in to grab the largest piece of pie they can.  The saddest commentary of all comes from the realization that tentacles lopped off inevitably grow back.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo