The International (Columbia Pictures, R)

film_international_sm.jpgOwen and Watts are intelligent, intuitive actors and you always know that more is going on behind their eyes than what the dialogue might indicate.








I wish they’d given it a better title, but The International is one absorbing, intelligent thriller. First of all, I’m a huge fan of the film’s stars, Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Both display a kind of striking gravitas on film that’s truly compelling to watch. They are intelligent, intuitive actors and you always know that more is going on behind their eyes than what the dialogue might indicate.

So, now we have The International, the taut, high-wire tale of an Interpol agent named Louis Salinger (Owen) investigating the shady practices — including arms sales and political destabilizations—of one of the world’s most powerful banks. Salinger is worn out, cynical and beaten down, but he’s a principled man who wants to see justice done. He’s aided by Manhattan district attorney Eleanor Whitman (Watts), who is under pressure to shut the investigation down because, well, the two have precious little evidence of the wrongdoing they suspect. The corpses pile up, however; anyone who seems to know anything tends to get dead, or escape to destinations unknown. And by the way, the destinations this film heads to are striking indeed: Berlin, Milan and other Italian locales, Istanbul, etc. The photography is gorgeous, and both the cinematography by Frank Griebe and the direction by Tom Tykwer are noteworthy. Tykwer takes his time setting up shots, showing panoramic views of where something awful is about to happen, then zeroing in on those affected.

The slow pace at times might test the patience of the short-attention span crowd, but it works for this movie—the sense of something sinister going on (embodied by thick-accented Armin Mueller-Stahl as an uber-powerful financier who’s not all he seems to be) is built up gradually, purposefully, so that when the big confrontations happen, you’re completely wowed by them. The film’s major set piece is a colossal shootout at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, involving scores of baddies pinning down Owen, his quarry and a pair of detectives. This is a jaw-dropping sequence reminiscent of the climactic gunplay in Michael Mann’s 1995 actioner, Heat. But what Tykwer stages here is even more intense, as bullets fly in all directions, fixtures drop from the ceiling, and Owen’s character is always just one false move away from being zapped. I honestly don’t know how this stuff was filmed; it’s a marvel of choreographed action and peerless editing.

The notion of banks being involved with illegal activities is in the news right now in ways that Tykwer and his crew couldn’t have imagined when production began. And it may well be that any big revelations here lose some potency as a result. "You control the debt, you control everything," a French politico tells Salinger and Whitman in one of several high stakes meetings held to unravel clues to the conspiracy. Well, yeah—but just how far will those who "control the debt" go? The question is at the heart of this film, but in today’s headlines on CNN, it seems to be unanswerable. It’s frightening to think about, for sure, as the trail of big money leaves carnage of all descriptions behind. Newsworthiness aside, the best way to enjoy The International is as an old-fashioned, globe-trotting thriller that’s perhaps a tad more cerebral than Bourne, Bond, et al. Sure, it has some holes, and as stated earlier, it can be slow moving at times. But overall, this is grandly compelling filmmaking, with two charismatic stars on their game, and a handful of powerhouse scenes. This could have been just another by-the-numbers espionage film; Tykwer and Co. have made it something far more memorable instead. | Kevin Renick

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