Jesus cartwheeling Christ I’m getting tired of seeing the same five movies over and over and over. Let’s see, there’s the brainless chick-flick rom-com, which has devolved into such an insulting backhand to the superior gender that I expect the women of the nation to rise up with torches and pitchforks and head for Hollywood any day now; there’s the heavy, family-oriented drama, leavened with one or two chirpy character actors to provide one-liners between shouting matches; then there’s the historical docudrama that typically bears about as much resemblance to history as I do to the chupacabra; and, um … the sprawling police epic (corrupt cop mandatory but undercover turncoat optional).
Did I miss any? Oh, that’s right, there’s The International, the latest cookie-cutter espionage “thriller,” featuring the Insanely All-Powerful Government or Corporate Cabal versus Haunted Renegade Maverick Cop, with an undercard of Plucky Female Sidekick and Grizzled Mentor With Vague European Accent. Director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and screenwriter Eric Singer (the Singer family newsletter) deliver a story that will feel pretty familiar to anyone who has even driven through a city with a movie theater. I don’t want to say The International is formulaic, but when Singer banged out the last line of dialogue, peevish non-breast-fed babies around the world spat up. (Rim shot!)
As for the plot, well, stop me if you’ve heard this one. It seems our hero, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), is the one cop in the entire world who is unhappy that the International Bank of Business and Commerce has entered the arms-dealing business as a direct buyer and seller. (Maybe he’s just upset that Interpol is a pale imitation of Joy Division.) IBBC, as all the cool Interpol agents call it, is so moonrock rich and politically well-connected that “everyone who has ever been in a position to move against this bank is either dead or disappeared.”
As the film opens, Salinger’s partner meets his death moments after meeting with an anonymous informant about the bank’s activities. Salinger turns to his only remaining ally, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), a New York Assistant District Attorney working with Interpol to investigate IBBC’s Manhattan branch, the hub of its U.S. operations and the only bank in town not offering free checking. With their bosses under political pressure to close down the investigation, Whitman and Salinger race against time in their globe-hopping investigation into IBBC’s latest venture, an arms deal moving Chinese missiles to Arab governments. At this point — about a half-hour in — things get stupid.
Singer and Tykwer initially conjure a glimmer of a fresh idea: a powerful bank tacitly protected by the authorities because its nefarious activities are useful to the CIA and other entities working the fringes of the law. The filmmakers promptly sink their ship, however, with a cannonade of nonsense. I’m going to risk a minor spoiler here because the strategy Salinger and Whitman use to attack IBBC is so brutally dumb that it might otherwise fatally bonk someone on the head. Salinger and Whitman quickly realize that IBBC is so intertwined with top world governments that they cannot make a frontal assault with ordinary police work; they’ll be either killed or shut down. Instead, they determine to wreck the bank’s fortunes by undermining IBBC’s Chinese missile deal, which, according to the shadowy bank officials themselves, would render IBBC insolvent and cause it to collapse.
Let me repeat that.
The basic premise of The International, the whole reason it’s supposedly “thrilling,” is that IBBC is so ultra-powerful, so replete with vast financial resources, and so completely and ruthlessly intertwined with international power, its leaders have the ability to kill anyone, anywhere, any time, then reach into any government to ensure that there are no consequences. One phone call from these people can result in the assassination of a presidential candidate or the invasion of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum by a gang of professional killers with machine guns. And yet, if IBBC fails to complete one arms deal with Iran, its entire operation will implode like the buffet at the Milwaukee Weight Watchers’ convention. In essence, The International answers the question, what would happen if James Bond tried to stop Goldfinger by screwing up his credit report?
Now, despite what you may have heard, my involvement with the supercriminal business has been, at most, sparse. I’m too sentimental, and the hours are just shit. One consequence of my actual regular job, however, is that I’ve negotiated contracts for and against a lot of rich, powerful assholes. Let me assure you that these people — rank amateurs compared with IBBC’s masterminds — did not get that way by getting into positions where one scroungy cop could cause their entire business to collapse by interfering with a sale. The central idea of the good guys’ approach in The International is just brain-dead, and it’s an intellectual malaise that infects the rest of the film.
Case in point: that Guggenheim thing. Over the past few days, any reference I’ve seen about The International has included someone going on and on about the movie’s shootout in the Guggenheim, and the action in that scene is well-staged. If The International has one gripping moment (spoiler No. 2: It doesn’t), the Guggenheim shootout would be it. But I don’t care how powerful your supersecret cabal is, if you send a dozen thugs with machine guns to shoot up the Guggenheim, the State Department is going to get a whiny phone call from Mayor Bloomberg, followed by you and your banker buddies getting blowed up real good. That’s just a low-percentage move for a supercriminal, no matter how many style points it racks up. Not to mention that even though terrified tourists are running pell mell from a major NYC attraction, it’s still a good five minutes before the first flatfoot shows up, despite the fact that there are probably a dozen uniforms within spitting distance of the Guggenheim at any particular moment. At some point, the suspension of disbelief required by The International becomes equivalent to lynching a hippo with dental floss. A filmmaker can get away with this kind of nonsense if the underlying concept is so overwhelmingly well-crafted that you don’t notice the chaff, but The International never builds up that kind of credit with the viewer.
For all its many flaws, The International is a pretty film; the washed-out hues and kinetic feel of the action provide some enjoyable sequences. The cast delivers solid, professional work, with the priceless Armin Mueller-Stahl, the bank’s shadowy consigliere, solidifying his position as one of the best character actors working. But it’s pretty dispiriting when the nicest thing I can say about a movie is that it doesn’t fall into the hoary trap of a romance between the leads. Early in the film we see Watts at her New York apartment with her hunky husband putting their kid to bed while she plunks away at the computer; she may be an obsessed workaholic, but she’s not straying from the nest. Credit the filmmakers for avoiding at least one cliché in making their movie.
On the other hand, Tykwer and Singer deserve the full firehose enema for their overall handling of Watts, whose character epitomizes the helpless female sidekick. In 90 percent of her screen time, Watts, a subtle and gifted actor, is given precious little to do beyond standing around looking worried or arguing with her boss about pursuing the case. In the few sequences where she’s close to the action, she’s relegated to toddling along behind Owen as he pieces together the crime. Her character is credited with a smart, prestigious career, and Watts has one nice moment bullying her way through a roadblock to help Owen make an escape, but Watts is mostly frittered away like so much Kristin-Scott-Thomas-is-in-Confessions-of-a-Shopaholic-WTF? Coming from a director who made his bones positing Franka Potente as an aggressively physical, can-do heroine, this ill-use of Watts makes about as much sense as the rest of the film.
Which brings me to the lynchpin of The International, our good friend Clive Owen. Seriously, Super Tiger Sex Commando, what exactly are you doing in this POS? We expect — nay, demand — better from you. To be sure, your talents are on full display, with the usual robust growling, scowling, skulking, shoving, muttering, glaring, and eye-fucking (wait, was that just me?) perking up an unambitious mainstream movie with good production values and nary an ounce of sense in its pretty, empty head. But we deserve more from you, boy-o. Inside Man and Children of Men were two of the better films of this decade, and then you went and followed them with the empty calories of Elizabeth:The Golden Age and this crap. You’re scheduled in sequels to Inside Man and Sin City in the next couple of years; if those go okay and you get your ass to work on a companion piece to Croupier, then all is forgiven.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
The International / Ted Boynton
Film | February 17, 2009 | Comments ()