Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review: The International

The International (2009, Tom Tykwer)

The release of The International was very timely. With the world economy experiencing a significant downward tailspin and accusations all around thrown towards several multinational enterprises and financial institutions for unethical practices (which generally led to amazing profits while so many other people’s and companies budgets and earnings were left to ashes), director Tom Tykwer brought us a story about, what else, a high profile bank engaged in various evildoings. The bank’s tentacles are spread far across the globe, with heavy influence on the Third World conflicts as well as the weapons manufacturing and sales industries. Clive Owen stars as Louis Salinger, a former Scotland Yard detective now working for Interpol, who has been tracking down the criminals pulling the bank’s strings for years already. With the help of his colleague Eleanor Whitman, played by Naomi Watts, they go from clue to clue (and usually from murder scene to murder scene) in order to take down those scoundrels down and hopefully burn that evil bank to ashes.

Thrillers of this nature, the ones that choose to be topical or that deal with a complex issue, are quite tricky to muster correctly. A sufficient amount of context and explanation must be provided so the audience can follow along. This can be called ‘exposition’, a term used to qualify whatever dialogue is used in a movie to keep the audience up to date, thus avoiding any possible confusion and subsequently losing the viewer’s interest. However, given that this is a thriller after all, the audience needs to be rewarded for their patience and concentration with a sense of excitement, either through action sequences or simply creative and well thought up scenes during which the protagonists are in some clear and present danger. The final ingredient is that for the viewer to feel the suspense, it needs to care for the protagonists in question. The perfect mixture of these ingredients is indeed difficult to find, but when that level of success is reached, a movie can be really darn good.

To get the basic argument out of the way, I’ll admit right now that I don’t think The International is a very good movie, but it does just enough, barely I should add, to prevent me from declaring it a ‘bad’ film. How so? I’m glad you asked.

First however, let's dissect the positives. Director Tykwer knows his camera work, there is no question about it. From a purely visual standpoint, The International is more than merely a ‘fine looking movie.’ It looks superb. Many scenes clearly indicate that care and precision went into the camerawork. Focus shots, smooth camera movements, clever shot setups in how what was at the forefront in the picture and what (or whom) lurked in the background, all this was expertly crafted. From start to finish, the movie is stylish and even smartly edited. There are a few sequences that stand out in particular even, the most prominent one being of course the now famous (relatively speaking) Guggenheim shootout sequence. Technically, it is an exquisite scene. From the moment Owen’s Louis Salinger walks in, to the moment he runs away with his dear life, it is a perfectly constructed action sequence, at least on the technical level. The individual shots and editing are very effective because, unlike in so many other action-oriented scenes we’re subject to these days, there is no disorientation. What’s happening, where the protagonist and antagonists are situated in this architecturally complex and unique building, all the dynamics of an intense action sequence are marvellously on display. As an admirer of good action films, I was very pleased to see how Tykwer handled the cinematography.

Confused? You and me both buddy.

Some of the more subtle moments are also nicely handled. The Guggenheim shootout was one way to show death and carnage, but there is another scene involving the murder of a bank employee that is so freaking cool that I almost want to watch the film again just for that moment. A bank employee is given a private drive along the Mediterranean on the Italian coast in a hilly region of the country (the same region where the pre-title sequence of Quantum of Solace was shot). The car passes from tunnel to tunnel on a relatively smooth ride. At one point, with the camera still overlooking the road and the mountains, the vehicle drives into yet another tunnel. The camera pans away, offering a breathtaking view of the scenery in the process, … but the car never exits the tunnel. It’s a great shot not only because it’s looks gorgeous, but because of what is implied. Without being too explicit, the scene becomes particularly eerie, even though it’s a villain who is being offed. Overall, Tykwer and his crew of camera workers and editors should be applauded. This is how you shoot a freaking thriller/action film.

So far, I’ve given the film a lot of praise, so what exactly is wrong with it? To put in bluntly: everything else. The script, the themes, the characters, none of those elements felt rewarding at all. The International suffers from some horrendous script problems, the most notable one being that the story and many of the individual dialogue scenes are either painfully boring or painfully heavy-handed. The early goings in the movie have Owen and Watts venture from interrogation to interrogation, from meeting to meeting, and all of them feel terribly flat and uninspired. The conversations are mundane and don’t provided the film any significant momentum, dare I say no momentum whatsoever. Who made a given money order, what are your connections, why is this person/group involved?, etc. I couldn’t find a single interesting dialogue scene in the many, many dialogue scenes that clutter the first hour. It’s just a bunch of gibberish delivered in rather uninspiring fashion, even by Naomi Watts, which is an absolute crime if you ask me. When one of the early ‘dramatic moments’ involved the Clive Owen character learning that a meeting that was scheduled with a bank representative has been cancelled, and the fact that this wasn’t trying to be funny in any way, I figured there was something fishy about the script. There is another scene that is so bizarre in its earnestness since what is transpiring feels so comical. A high end representative of the bank (maybe the CEO, I don’t recall to be honest) is in a phone conversation with a colleague while at home with his young son. When prompted to make a crucial decision that will undoubtedly have repercussions, the evil representative bases his choice on some fluffy pseudo-philosophical advice provided by his 7 or 8 year old boy. These scenes are supposed to be taken seriously, but I’m pretty sure that’s impossible.

Clive Owen is a fine, fine actor, arguably one of the better mainstream actors working in big budget films today. He does bring a certain grittiness to his role as the burned out and vengeful Interpol agent (a colleague of his is killed off early on, presumably by this all powerful bank), but there isn’t a whole lot about this character to latch onto. He’s basically glum throughout the entire movie. Soon before the final act commences, Salinger is interrogating a former high end bank employee (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The kind of replies the Mueller-Stahl character provides are shamefully predictable and mundane, which deprives this crucial scene of any originality or tension. Soon afterwards Salinger storms out of the room and spews out towards the Noami Watts character why he is so obsessed with this investigation, but it’s completely ham-fisted and unnecessary. By this point everybody knows who is good, who is bad and why Salinger is doing all of this, there’s no reason for him to spell it out. Naomi Watts is quite literally given nothing to do, so much so that her character is actually thrown out of the mix with about 25-30 minutes left in the story. I rarely get worked up about action and thriller movie scripts, but I couldn’t help but feel that the screenwriters didn’t know how to handle the material. Instead of being thought-provoking, morally ambiguous and subtle, what the viewer is left with is a boring story that, for my money, takes itself far too seriously. Big bank=bad, overworked and underpaid detectives=good, or something like that. Yeah, yeah, I get it already.

The International was a very frustrating viewing experience. On a technical level, and especially for those of you who admirer good cinematography and well crafted action, I’m tempted to encourage you to watch it on Blu-Ray, a format that I don’t doubt for a second makes the film look beautiful at home. But as a complete movie experience, which preferably should have some interesting characters, story arc and themes, the film is an absolute mess. Unless you are very, very forgiving, or want to see a slick looking movie and nothing more, I’d say this needs to be avoided.

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