Saturday, March 28, 2009

Review of The International

Watching this movie was truly a feat of endurance. First, it lumbers around like the washed-up jocks in The Wrestler. Second, the girlfriend and I saw this the day after we helped her youngest brother and now-wife move into their apartment. Put the two together and you're in for a long afternoon.

By the way, guys, unless you're a professional or between the ages of 21 and 22, try not to help out on a move on back-to-back days.

This review was previously published in the March issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

The International features a tough guy with critical credibility (Clive Owen) and a serious actress (Naomi Watts) in the leading roles. It is directed by a foreign darling, and deals with the crushing influence of big banks. In case all those serious trappings don't get smart people away from their literary magazines and public television shows, the movie shuffles us around the world. Sure, it's an international thriller, but it's got a better pedigree than the others, including the ones starring that Jason Bourne person.

At least the Bourne series is exciting. The International feels like watching the world news for two hours, and there's no sports beat, sultry weather girl, or human interest piece to break the monotony. It spends so much time proving its substance that director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) forgets about entertaining us, even when its main characters walk the fine line of danger.

Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) and Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Watts) are convinced that the powerful International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) is funding organized crime worldwide. Their dogged investigation reaches a breakthrough when Lou's partner meets with an IBBC informant, but the taste of victory can be measured with a minute hand. The partner drops dead after his meeting, and the informant dies in a mysterious car crash soon after.

Ella and Lou redouble their efforts to find the truth on the IBBC, which leads the good-looking investigators to Italy, where their source is promptly assassinated. Undeterred, the duo's keen detection skills lead to the bank's contract killer (BrĂ­an F. O'Byrne), who is as stealthy and sneaky as his employer. As Ella and Lou get one step closer to exposing the IBBC, the banking giant gets annoyed. That means no one is safe.

The foundation is in place for a thrilling good time, but Tykwer and writer Eric Warren Singer violate a big rule of suspenseful moviemaking--show, don't tell. Ella and Lou's investigation is destroyed by explanations of the IBBC and world affairs, which make the movie move like it has a safe tied to its back. And I know financial institutions are perfectly villainous right now, but moviegoers need a human target for their hate. The IBBC execs are all bland and well-groomed and stuffy, but we never get the sense that they're capable of evil, nor do they seem to relish their roles as puppet-masters. Your boss is probably nicer.

In the movie's second half, Tykwer colors outside the lines. There's an amazing shootout in the Guggenheim, and we learn more about the IBBC's "cleaner" (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a former Stasi colonel who has lost his way. Those moves come with too much baggage. If the IBBC is so covert in its evil, would it really send a dozen men with automatic weapons to storm a city landmark? As for Lou's interaction with the aged colonel, the dialogue between them takes a jarring philosophical turn, a feeble attempt to show the parallels between two men of substance.

Once it lays down its premise, The International constantly feels uncertain of how it wants to proceed, an attitude that spreads to Watts, an actress of enormous power, the kind of talent that can jumpstart a stalled movie. But she's handcuffed with a blank role that gives her nothing to do. (Owen will be playing rugged anti-heroes until he dies, so he's fine.) She kind of flirts with Owen's character, keeping in line with Tykwer's "should I or shouldn't I?" approach--and we never find out why she's devoted to the IBBC case. Having Watts on hand does not give a movie instant credibility; you have to, you know, use her.

The movie is similarly ineffective. It just sits there, gathering dust, as the audience waits for something, anything to happen. The International doesn't need a director or a retooled screenplay. It needs jumper cables. R

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