Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The International Bore

In the thriller, The International, Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) are determined to bring to justice one of the world’s most powerful banks. Uncovering myriad and reprehensible illegal activities, Salinger and Whitman follow the money from Berlin to Milan to New York to Istanbul. Finding themselves in a high-stakes chase across the globe, their relentless tenacity puts their own lives at risk as their targets will stop at nothing – even murder – to continue financing terror and war.

The International scampers all over the place, but it's alternately frantic and a little slack, with a hole in the middle where some interesting characters ought to be. Screenwriter Eric Warren Singer based his script on the Bank of Credit and Commercial Intl., a Pakistan-born institution that specialized in money laundering, arms dealing and financing rebel armies, mercenaries and terrorists from the 1970s until its demise in 1991. The fictional bank in question here, the IBBC, has a formidable, ultra-sleek HQ in Luxembourg and seems to function equally as an assassination bureau and a broker for weapons sales among unsavory parties. Having witnessed a colleague drop dead in Berlin after nearly uncorking a deal for a sophisticated missile guidance system between the Chinese and some undesirables, it falls to sweaty, grubby, pushy Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen), formerly of Scotland Yard, to finger the bad boys, who are all well-groomed, overly serious Euros expert at hard stares and putting on airs of steely superiority. For reasons glided over too quickly to sink in, Salinger is paired with New York Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Watts) to pursue their suspicions. European officials suddenly become extremely uncooperative when they find out who the pair is investigating, even after another high-profile murder and a political assassination in Milan bear the IBBC signature. Nearly an hour in, the action shifts to New York City for the sole purpose of staging the film's major violent setpiece on the curving ramps of the Guggenheim Museum. After a wildly coincidental chance sighting of the assassin, cutely known only as the Consultant (Brian F. O'Byrne), Frank Lloyd Wright's Upper East Side masterpiece is turned into a war zone as it gets shot to pieces by philistines wielding very heavy artillery. Taking performance art to new levels of mayhem, Tykwer moves his shooters amid ever-changing wall video installations as they maneuver up, down and around the gallery. As orchestrated chaos ensues for 14 minutes, you mostly wonder how the sequence was filmed, if a combination of the real place and sets was used and why the Guggenheim would have allowed it. The answer is that, except for some establishing shots, the sequence was entirely staged on a massive, utterly credible re-creation in an old railway roundhouse in Berlin. Salinger's spirited tag-along crimefighter Whitman is one of the few roles to which Watts hasn't been able to bring anything special, because there's nothing remotely suggested about her inner-life or past. By contrast, Armin Mueller-Stahl's titan of corruption at the center of IBBC has been loaded with a ripe former career to help explain his malfeasance, just the latest example of how much more interesting it can be to play complicated bad guys rather than one-dimensional good ones. Scripter Singer latched onto a good subject for a thriller but paid more attention to connecting the dramatic dots than to delving beneath the surface of international business or personality. Dialogue is generally mundane with functional intent. What is puzzling about The International is the way it frequently switches between being US studio-smooth and Euro-pudding awkward. It takes the trouble to set up a Silvio Berlusconi-like character with a party called Futuro Italia (in the same way as its evil arms-dealing bank is a BCCI-alike called The International Bank of Business and Credit) and swishes between Luxembourg, Berlin, New York, Istanbul, Lake Garda and Milan, but the sound quality is often 80s-murky. And the dialogue itself seems to come from Karate Kid: "Sometimes," Owen's Interpol detective tells Stasi-chief-turned-banker Armin Mueller-Stahl, "a man meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it." So enamoured is Tykwer/writer Eric Warren Singer of this line, they have Mueller-Stahl repeat it back to him later. The proceedings kick off in Berlin's newly-built Hauptbanhof train station where Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) has been working in an elaborate international operation with Manhattan DA Eleanor Whitman (Watts) on one of Luxembourg-based IBBC's senior officers to turn state witness. It all goes quickly awry, however, and Salinger and Whitman must now work to unravel IBBC's murderous and all-powerful network together, an obsession which has predictably destroyed Salinger's life and almost ruined his career. The International is certainly ambitious, with Tykwer introducing multiple characters, plot strands and locations on the way to a zinging shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum. This sequence isn't exactly logically played out but it does give The International the shot in the arm it so badly needs at this point before descending again into hammy dialogue and lovely-looking locales. It's always a pleasure to see Armin Mueller-Stahl, but at this point he practically has "monster" tattooed on his forehead when it comes to English-language productions, and the denouement (again, shot in Istanbul) never seems less than inevitable. Owen's out-of-shape Interpol agent frankly doesn't seem bright enough to keep up with the international network of evil that is IBBC; his facial expression runs from puzzled to baffled to exhausted as he puffs down a Manhattan street. But it's not easy to say "sometimes bridges are better off being burnt" with a straight face. Twkyer may well find he's set a few alight here. Too bad that this wasn't as good as it could've been. A saddened 2 on my "Go See" scale.

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