Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Film review: Even with a bank as villain, 'International' plays it too safe

Clive Owen as Interpol agent Louis Salinger
in The International.

By John Thomason

Word has it that The International originally was slated for a fall 2008 release but was pushed back to the notorious dump month of February after poorly received test screenings.

Given how long the movie has been in gestation, the makers of the espionage thriller could not have predicted the economic collapse and resulting financial bailout that would put the banking industry – villain No. 1 in the film’s tapestry of corruption – at the forefront of our news cycles.

I’m not sure how this helps a thriller that is too safe to go anywhere provocative or prescient with this choice of a monolithic corporate enemy, but it surely doesn’t hurt. We want to be upset with banks right now, with poll after poll showing citizens unhappy with the amount of tax dollars hemorrhaging from the federal government to provide a TARP over executives worried about their golden parachutes.

This is why lines such as “You control the debt, you control everything,” spoken by a cynical revolutionary about the film’s fictional banking juggernaut, make us all nod our heads. But unlike the superior Michael Clayton, which took aim at specific corporate corruption with laser-sharp aim and unsettling real-life resonance, The International’s sociopolitical targets are hit by pure coincidence.

This is the same standard intrigue we’ve seen in film after film: money laundering, international arms trading, the toppling of governments, quid pro quos discussed in high-ceilinged edifices, yada yada yada. It’s all the stuff of generic supermarket paperbacks, as commonly nefarious as anything penned or filmed in the past three decades.

And like most lines of dialogue spoken in The International, that nugget of wisdom about the control of debt sounds like a bona fide trailer line. In trying to make complicated financial skullduggery accessible for a mass audience, screenwriter Eric Singer has written a screenplay of soundbites, whose characters talk as though they know they’re in a movie.

At the core of the film’s controversy is the fictitious International Bank of Business and Credit. If you think that name sounds a lot like the real-life Pakistani Bank of Credit and Commerce International, whose $20 billion heist in the early ‘90s was one of the most notorious in global financial history, then you get a gold star. Hence the film’s inspiration, but again, unfortunately, it eschews surprising specificity, preferring predictable sweep.

The heroes trying to break the bank are Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), a wide-eyed and sleepless Interpol agent, and Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), a Manhattan assistant district attorney who puts her career on the line to pursue her partner’s hunches (of course, this being a mainstream thriller, her partner’s hunches are infallible).

There’s a refreshing absence of the usually obligatory love story in the colleagues’ relationship, but if there were, perhaps Watts would have been utilized more. As is, she gets lost in the movie’s grand scheme, handing the reins almost fully to Owen. Bursting with panicky energy and short-fused volatility, Owen burns up where most actors should play it cool, sounding uncomfortable in the role of vengeance-seeking, Eastwoodian action lead.

This may have something to do with direction of Tom Tykwer, who, despite the title of his latest film, has fallen out of international auteur prestige. The German cineaste is most known for 1998’s kinetic, techno-scored trifle Run Lola Run, which brought MTV flash-cuts to arthouses and today joins Pan’s Labyrinth and Amelie on the shortlist of foreign-language movies that most people who don’t like foreign-language movies tend to enjoy.

Tykwer has directed better material, like the moving fable The Princess and the Warrior and the exquisite Heaven, the final screenplay from the late Polish master Krzystof Kieslowski.

But with The International, the result it so rote and pedestrian that you can sense the passion and inspiration Tykwer brought to his personal projects just aren’t there -- save for a heart-stopping shootout staged in a life-size replica of the Guggenheim, which will likely be the set piece for which the film is remembered.

But it says something that, prior to the violence in the museum, the video-art installations scrolling across one of the upper levels is a lot more interesting than the story in the foreground.

John Thomason is a freelance film critic based in South Florida.

THE INTERNATIONAL. Cast: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen; Director: Tom Tykwer; Studio: Sony; Venue: Most commercial houses, opens Friday

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