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What's the big deal?
The International is an action thriller film released in 2009 and was written by Eric Warren Singer after he was inspired by the banking scandals of the Eighties and Nineties. Directed by Tom Tykwer, the film depicts an Interpol agent and an Assistant DA attempt to investigate corruption at a merchant bank and find themselves in the middle of a deadly conspiracy. The film stars Clive Owen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl and has been favourably compared to paranoid political thrillers of the past like All The President's Men. Critics were divided at the time of release, praising the film's tone and prescient subject matter but criticising the development of the characters. The film also failed to find an audience with global takings of just $60.2 million but the film does have an ace up its sleeve - one of the very best action scenes this critic has ever since, on a par with the lobby shoot-out from The Matrix.
What's it about?
Interpol detective Louis Salinger and Eleanor Whitman, an assistant DA based in Manhattan, have been teaming up to investigate rumours of corruption at the International Bank of Business & Credit (IBBC). Sources suggest that the bank has been involved in money laundering, arms trading, the destabilisation of governments and even the sponsoring of terrorist activities. After uncovering a link between the IBBC and Italian arms manufacturer Umberto Calvini, the pair head to Milan where Calvini is running as a presidential candidate.
Suddenly, Calvini is assassinated on stage as he's about to speak to a crowd of supporters. The assassin then frames another individual who is then shot dead by a corrupt policeman. Witnessing the mayhem, Salinger and Whitman track the real assassin down to New York where they start working alongside the NYPD. As Salinger heads for a clandestine meeting with a potential whistle-blower at the Guggenheim Museum, he is unaware that the IBBC - as always - are one step ahead...
Brían F. O'Byrne
Eric Warren Singer
27th February, 2009
Action, Crime, Drama
What's to like?
It isn't often a film perfectly encapsulates a specific news story or is lucky enough to be released at a time when the film's narrative is making front-page news around the world. The International was released at the beginning of 2009 when the fallout from the previous year's financial collapse was still being assessed. The cause, it was speculated, was due to bank malpractise which is exactly what this film is about - albeit in a sexy, stylish kinda way. In fact, the movie has style to spare - this is an easy film to watch despite the complex narrative and has a Kubrickian aesthetic that pleases the eye.
Nowhere is this more evident than during the film's centre-piece, an exhilarating and bloody shootout at the Guggenheim Museum with its striking architecture and clinical atmosphere. Every shot in this sequence is just sublime - pitching an out-manned and outgunned man against an army of assassins, the scene has a stark and brutal simplicity about it with no kung-fu or slow motion wire-work to show off. Civilian extras run for their lives, screaming in terror as the scene unfolds. You can see why Owen was pitched as a potential candidate to play 007 and frankly, I'm stunned that Tykwer hasn't been offered a job directing a film like John Wick on the strength of this scene alone.
Such is the scene's magnificence that the rest of the movie struggles to match it but this isn't a film reliant on action alone. The drama and tension between the character is what drives The International and it makes a change to find a thriller that actually concentrates on raising the stakes and telling a story instead of just blowing stuff up for the sake of entertainment. The narrative does get a little complex at times but astute viewers should be able to keep track of who is doing what and why.
- The shootout at the Guggenheim was mostly shot on a life-sized replica set built in Germany that was 118 feet wide (36m) and took ten weeks to construct. It was so large that the studio wasn't big enough so a disused train warehouse near Berlin was used instead. It even included a audio-visual art installation by Julian Rosefeldt.
- If the final scene in Istanbul looks familiar, it's because it was used as part of a motorcycle chase during the opening scenes in Skyfall. It is actually the roof of the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered shopping markets in the world.
- The film draws parallels with a number of real-life incidents such as the 1991 collapse of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International (BCCI) amid allegations of financial fraud, the still-unsolved murder of banker Roberto Calvi who had suspected links to both Mafia organisations and the Catholic Church and the poisoning of Georgi Markov in 1978 by the Bulgarian Secret Service at the request of the KGB.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, The International also proves why Owen failed to win the part of James Bond from Daniel Craig for Casino Royale. Looking as rough and dishevelled as a private eye in a bad noir film, Owen isn't as memorable or engaging as you hoped he might be and it makes the central character of Salinger almost feel anonymous. The same can be said for Watts: despite enormous talent, she never really makes much of an impression as the female lead. However, I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt as the script never allows us the chance to get to know them. Aside from a brief glimpse of Whitman with her husband and family, you know next to nothing about these characters other than their sole aim in life - to bring the IBBC down. Which creates another problem - surely these characters would understand the insignificance of their actions if they'd been paying any attention to the IBBC whatsoever. We understand that it will take more than computer files and printed evidence to succeed so why don't our heroes?
The film, like many Europe-based thrillers in recent years, isn't content with showing us pretty buildings in one country so there's the usual rundown of European destinations that almost feel like a tourism video for American viewers although pristine office blocks and public squares full of modern art are unlikely to win over people like me who was lucky enough to be in Japan earlier this year, ticking off another life ambition. The point is, however pertinent and prescient the film may be, it isn't actually that gripping or interesting for the most part. In fact, the film only really comes to life during the Guggenheim scene which offers a tantalising glimpse of what the film might have been like if it wasn't throwing in so much exposition.
Should I watch it?
The International is an odd film, full of complex dialogue about the intricacies of financial crime and the power of banks to abuse the law and seemingly get away with it. In fact, it's disheartening that even today it appears as though little has changed in that respect. But sandwiched in the middle of this otherwise forgettable caper is simply one of the greatest movie shootouts I've ever seen, a bloody and blistering burst of action that comes out of nowhere and stuns you into submission. It's the realism of the moment that impresses you the most but when it's finished, you spent the rest of the movie wishing it was always as good as that.
Great For: very patient action fans (trust me, it is worth the wait), conspiracy nuts, the underpaid
Not So Great For: anyone who works in the financial sector, multinational banks and corporations, anyone who doesn't read the news
What else should I watch?
Truthfully, the film I was reminded of the most was Sydney Pollock's The Interpreter and not just because the similar names. Both films are well-intended and shot with a genuine eye for making urban landscapes interesting as well as having a narrative that is both different and engrossing. But I prefer The Interpreter due to the stronger performances by Sean Penn (who I normally dislike) and Nicole Kidman who plays an interpreter at the UN who overhears an assassination plot on an African leader's life. For a more in-depth look at the 2007-2008 crash, The Big Short was adapted from the book of the same name in 2015 that explains the reasons behind the crash in unconventional but easy-to-understand ways.
I feel as though I have been a bit harsh of Owen in this review so allow me to redress the balance a little. After his breakthrough performance in 1991's Close My Eyes, Owen spent most of the Nineties in TV movies before a notable appearance in murder mystery film Gosford Park alongside the cream of British acting talent. His supporting turn in The Bourne Identity brought him international recognition and his career has gone from strength to strength. His peak probably came during his appearance as Dwight in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, where he holds his own alongside more established stars like Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Benicio del Toro.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox