Friday, September 11, 2009

Clive Owen vs. Big Business: The International

According to IMDB, The International was supposed to appear in 2008, but was delayed until 2009 for reshoots and increased action. I don't know if the delay made the movie any better than it is, but it did serve to make the film topical - when it came out, we were all worried about evil banks. Just about every reviewer of the film discussed The International's supposed relevance, but one can push the topicality angle too far. The International isn't a Syriana-style paranoid exploration of the economy's evil. It's a cop thriller. The problem in real life was that the banks had incompetents in charge. The problem in the movie is that the banks are run by sociopaths. It's a lot less complicated and a lot more entertaining than real life.

The International begins in media res; our hero (Clive Owen) and his law enforcement companions from Interpol and the NYC DA's office already know that the titular bank, the IBCC, is thoroughly evil. We're saved the long scenes of Clive Owen and Naomi Watts digging through archives and discovering horrible forgotten deeds. By the time the film begins, they've already done that. As such, we can get straight to the point of the film: The investigation's endgame. Though there are several references to the bank's prior misdeeds, we never learn how Interpol got onto the case. For the purposes of the film, it's not important.

For the most part, The International is a very detached and "cool"-looking film - there's lots in the way of sleek glass office buildings, white museums, and bird's-eye views of symmetrical urban areas. When the film's not being sleek, it's usually being exotic or scenic: The film has scenes in Germany, Italy, and Turkey. Though there a few sequences reminiscent of the last two Bourne movies, director Tom Tykwer tends to hold his shots instead of engaging in Greengrass-imitation rapid cutting. The camera doesn't linger, but it doesn't sprint either. On the rare occasions that The International departs from its established aesthetic, it's quite jarring. Alas, the most memorable of these scenes really hurts the mood of the film. Did we really need a comic scene with a frazzled and paranoid pothead doctor? It's very out-of-place in an otherwise very intense film.

Aside from the bank "hook," the most famous aspect of The International is its Guggenheim Museum scene. The New York Guggenheim, that great white spiral, is a perfect fit for the movie's aesthetic, and the sequence there is by far the best part of the film. The Guggenheim has appeared in movies before - there's a chase there in Men in Black, of all things - but I don't know if it's ever been used better than it is here. The Boston Globe's Ty Burr has called it one of the best action scenes he's ever seen. For once I agree with the man. The museum scene is on par with the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest. It's a shame that the rest of the film isn't as good as Hitchcock's masterpiece.

(For what it's worth, the Guggenheim sequence was actually done in a full-size replica of the building's atrium. I guess the museum trustees didn't want Tykwer and Co. really trashing the place)

The International's cast only has two big names, Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Owen is good as the obsessed (and oddly-named) detective Louis Salinger, but Watts is awful as Eleanor Whitman, Clive Owen's sounding board and platonic (!) friend. I suppose much of the problem lies with the script - Salinger is one of only two or three characters with anything like development; we learn that Watts' character has a husband and kids, but they don't have much impact on the plot. Similarly, we see one of the villains at home, but don't learn much about his non-murderous activities. Perhaps due to rewrites and reshoots, the movie has serious pacing issues: Things move very slowly until the Guggenheim sequence, after which the film gets quite fast. Still, the script does have its moments: The ending isn't entirely a copout, for one, and the film poses moral questions without being too heavy-handed.

I liked The International and I recommend it, albeit with caveats. Though not one of the best recent thrillers - say, Casino Royale or The Bourne Ultimatum - The International is a very fun and well-made movie. It's worth seeing, not because of its topicality, but for the second part of the film, after the Guggenheim shootout. If only the start of the film could match its finish.

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