International, The (United States/Germany/United Kingdom, 2009)

February 12, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
International, The Poster

The International possesses the look and feel of a thriller, but not the heart or soul of one. With a cold, clinical precision, director Tom Tykwer establishes the complex narrative and weaves in a few extraneous action sequences, but it's an exercise in plot contortions. There are no characters to speak of - just moving pieces that go where the storyline demands and do what the storyline requires. Clive Owen, normally an actor of great charisma and energy, is flat. And Naomi Watts is criminally underused. She spends most of her screen time standing around playing second fiddle to Owen. In the end, we're left wondering why she agreed to be in the film.

The premise will resonate strongly with many viewers in an era when bankers have supplanted lawyers and politicians as the most detestable individuals on the face of the planet. The cadre at the top of the control structure of the International Bank for Business and Credit (IBBC) are organizing arms deals so they can control the debt of countries in Africa and the Middle East where there are skirmishes and border wars. When someone crosses the IBBC or comes close to exposing one of their secrets, that individual's life expectancy decreases dramatically. Maverick Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and his bedraggled sidekick, New York assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), are out for justice when one of their mutual colleagues is killed, but they soon find themselves on the outside looking in when the IBBC exerts influence on their superiors.

The story unfolds like a novel of international intrigue but there's almost too much information and exposition to convey cleanly within the confines of a two-hour motion picture. There are also a couple of extended action scenes (including a rather spectacular shoot-out at the Guggenheim Museum that is as good-looking as it is dramatically unnecessary) that appear to have been shoehorned into the movie to increase its action quotient. The ultimate pointlessness of these scenes makes them feel more like loud, messy distractions. Their inclusion indicates the filmmakers' tacit acceptance that the predominantly cerebral thriller is a dying breed. It's like watching something written by Len Deighton that keeps being interrupted by an episode of 24.

The lead characters are as uninteresting as any I have encountered in this sort of motion picture. Much as I generally appreciate both actors, I was underwhelmed by them in The International. Their characters aren't merely underdeveloped - they're undeveloped. Late in the movie when Louis is faced with a moral dilemma, I discovered I had no vested interest in how he resolved the situation. It piqued my intellectual curiosity, but it didn't concern me if the solution led to his death. Strangely, the most interesting individual in the film is Wilhelm Wexler (veteran Armin Mueller-Stahl), an ex-Stasi colonel who gathers intelligence for the IBBC. When you look into his eyes, you can see a soul - something that's not true of Louis.

For a story with such complex development, the ending is anticlimactic. How likely is it that with so many power brokers in play that the final act will feature a stand-off between two men? The movie fails in its resolution because it reduces all of the plotting and counter-plotting, all of the influence peddling and high-level blackmail, to the simplest of equations: one main pointing a gun at another. For a production that aspires to be so much more than a typical thriller, The International concludes on a too-familiar note.

To date, director Tykwer is probably best known as the architect of Run Lola Run, the fast-paced, high-voltage thriller that became a huge success on the art house circuit a decade ago. Little of the innovation or energy evident in Run Lola Run can be found in The International. In fact, this film's greatest strength lies not in its visceral, action-oriented scenes but in those that hint at the kinds of international conspiracies that are easy enough to believe in today's economic climate. The main thing that keeps The International from being truly gripping is the replacement of flesh-and-blood protagonists with photogenic mannequins.

International, The (United States/Germany/United Kingdom, 2009)

Director: Tom Tykwer
Cast: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen
Screenplay: Eric Warren Singer
Cinematography: Frank Griebe
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2009-02-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1