Monday, February 16, 2009

The International

By Elise Nakhnikian

At the end of The International, Interpol investigator Lou Salinger (Clive Owen) draws a bead on bad-guy Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), a banker who thrives on creating chaos. Skarssen's bank, IBBC, funds insurgencies, buys up missile guidance systems, and blithely assassinates whoever gets in the way of its nefarious plan to control the debt produced by wars worldwide.

Salinger has spent years trying to hold the bank to account for its evil ways, so this showdown should be his moment. But The International apparently aspires to be more than just a travelogue studded with shoot-em-up showdowns. And so, instead of pulling out an RPG or pleading for his life, Skarssen tries to calmly talk Salinger out of killing him. Shooting me won't solve a thing, he says. Another banker will just take my place, and business will go on as usual.

He's right, of course. You can't fix a corrupt system by blowing away a few head guys and henchmen. But by pointing out the futility of Salinger's quest, director Tom Twyker and screenwriter Eric Warren Singer undermine their own narrative, making their hero's attempt to hunt down the people behind the bank look dumb or deluded -- or worse. After all, Salinger's personal jihad causes a lot of what someone in the film actually refers to as "collateral damage."

What really cuts the legs out from under this story is its hamfisted dialogue and almost total lack of character development. Salinger, his allies, and his enemies are the flattest set of characters I've seen in a long time. Were the filmmakers trying to prove Skarssen's point about individuals being interchangeable or is this just bad writing?

The scene where Salinger interrogates Skarssen's right-hand man Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) highlights one problem with that approach. Since we know almost nothing about Wexler, the movie has to grind to a halt while Salinger delivers a long, lumpy speech about Wexler's background and motivation and the role he has played in fomenting mayhem for IBBC.

The other problem, of course, is that you don’t really care what happens to someone if you don't have some idea of what makes him tick.

If there were a law against wasting acting talent, Twyker would be locked up for years for this movie. Owen works hard to give Salinger heft, frowning and fretting and throwing the occasional tantrum. Naomi Watts swathes her neck in scarves to show that she's tightly wound as Ella, Salinger's colleague in the Manhattan DA's office. Brian O'Byrne and Mueller-Stahl make a mesmerizing if opaque hitman-handler pair, and Thomsen's icy Nordic banker is so composed he seems almost embalmed. You can't take your eyes off any of them, but they have so little to work with that you can't do much besides ogle them, as the caressing close-ups invite you to do.

The International does some things well -- the showy shootout at the Guggenheim Museum is very good in spots, though you'd think they could have done more with that setting. But even the things it does best, like its travelogue-style shots of cities like Berlin, Milan, and Istanbul, feel as rote as its undistinguished soundtrack.

By trying to be more than "just" a genre piece, The International winds up being much less than international chase films with soul, like the Bourne series or the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale. Instead, it's just an x-ray of a movie: all structure and no substance.

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