Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 3:50 pm on February 20, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 2/13/09)
Directed By: Tom Tykwer
Written By: Eric Singer
Cinematographer: Frank Griebe
Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen

I admit that I didn’t initially think the idea of a bank as a criminal organization sounded very interesting (at least not as the basis for a movie), but I think I was forgetting the times we live in: aren’t the finance-related professions the most criminal of all? According to The International, at least one of them is, but by taking a more sophisticated than expected perspective on the issue, the film becomes both more interesting and more relevant.

Such a story takes a lot of exposition to set up, but Eric Singer’s script has a good innate sense of what to gloss over and what to delve into. The story is humanized through the eyes of Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), but it’s globalized by its bold willingness to touch upon a wide breadth of international issues: terrorism (of course), money laundering, arms dealing, and the dirtiest sides of the dirty business of politics. The film exudes a realistic, worldly sense of international intrigue, with a globe-trotting production that’s not unlike the recent James Bond film Quantum of Solace, particularly in its delvings into the behind-the-scenes machinations of world governments. It has a broader scope than that film, though, more comparable to last year’s Body of Lies: the focus here is on the cascading effects of the various players examined, most prominently the fictional International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC), which Wikipedia tells me is loosely based on the real-life (but defunct) Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).

For an audience, this film works best if we just let all of the exposition wash over us and take it as it comes. There is no character present to act as our surrogate, to ask the questions we’re wondering, or to request the explanations we would require to fully understand all of what’s going on. Viewed casually, it all certainly seems like it must add up, somehow, but I’m not entirely sure it’d hold up to scrutiny if we really wanted to try to insist that all of the pieces fit together as we’re told they do.

No matter, though; this film is about setting up an international conspiracy with far-reaching implications, and we see that there’s a conspiracy, and we get to experience several of its implications, and that’s enough. It’s also about suspense and action, though it doles the latter out in more moderation than I would’ve expected (this film should not be confused as having much in common with Owen’s earlier Shoot ‘Em Up, to say the least). The one exception to this comes at the climax of the second act, with a lengthy, bloody, and altogether impressive shoot-out sequence that takes pace at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Director Tom Tykwer (who I am familiar with—as I assume is the case with most American audiences—from Run Lola Run) handles this scene with an impressive sense of balance, keeping it above a simple bullets-flying bloodfest—although I did feel that he went a little overboard with the gore, past the line of “this feels real” and into “it’s so bloody, it’s funny” territory at times. There is genuine character progression during the shoot-out, though, and some notably good pieces of performance from Brian F. O’Byrne (the Irish cousin from Brotherhood) as the anonymous “Consultant.”

The performances throughout are above average, actually, and that helps to keep things feeling realistic, even if in the back of your mind you’re not sure you’re buying everything being thrown at you. Armin Mueller-Stahl, here in a sort of Eastern Promises reunion with Naomi Watts, is particularly good, and Owen and Watts both hold their own in the leading roles, as expected. Tykwer’s direction matches the rest of the film by coming across as more interesting than I was prepared for, not only in the aforementioned Guggenheim scene, but also notably during a pivotal interrogation scene at the start of the third act, which he shoots partially through the grates in a heavy metal door, effectively enhancing the lonely solitude the scene’s focal character finds himself confronting. By the time we reach the film’s climax, things get a bit jumbled and increasingly harder to keep track of—no matter how well the actors are selling it—but The International does a better job than most movies of this ilk at maintaining its internal consistency, at least, and that ensures that it remains enjoyable throughout.