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If there is not a lot to say about Tom Tykwer's thriller, The International, there's plenty to look at, and the movie itself is the best guide to that. Mr Tykwer's mastery of the basics of big-movie making is, perhaps unfortunately for him, suave in the extreme, disappointing critics in search of that grain of sand around which to spin their pearls. There are no irritants, no prods to meaning, in The International. Instead, there are carefully composed scenes that fit the movie's story like skin. Whether that story is paranoid nonsense couldn't be a less interesting question.
Having seen the movie just the once, I'm not prepared to write the cinematic equivalent of a close reading of, say, the exciting sequence shot at Milan's Stazione Centrale. But the alternation of close-ups and long shots is almost as interesting as the assassination and its aftermath that fill the screen one way or the other. Mr Tykwer directs with the rhythm of a dancer, and The International is often as effortlessly elating as a Paul Taylor dance. This is what the movie is actually about.
The story on the surface could have been told far more darkly than Mr Tykwer tells it, and undoubtedly would have been been played for bleakness by most directors. Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is an agent of some sort who has devoted his career to bringing down an international bank based in Luxembourg; he suspects it of myriad illegal activities, currently arms-running, but every time he builds his case to the point of proof, his witness dies or disappears. This has made him a sour fellow, and Mr Owen does not do a lot of smiling in this film. His adversary, Jonas Skarssen, is played by the Danish star Ulrich Thomsen, an actor whose mouth has an inborn sneer (not unlike Kate Winslet's). At the end, pleading for his life, Skarssen tries to persuade Salinger that his own death won't stop anything, and, in the movie's coda, he's shown to be correct. There is really no way to shut down a vast organization capable of co-opting senior police officers in major cities.
Instead of forecasting this depressing outcome, Mr Tykwer follows not so much Salinger as his target. International banking is wonderfully international, and, in addition to Milan, we're taken to Berlin, Paris, New York, and most sunnily, Istanbul. It is not the Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk's melancholy rambles, but the sharp and bright city that I visited a few years ago. (Compared to what they looked like in From Russia With Love, the famous sewers look rather like a genteel eco-park). The travel, as travel is so often in life but so rarely in movies, is exciting; the director knows how to keep it from boiling over in frenetic spillage. There is not a trace of Hitchcockian suspense, but the master's very firm hand is much in evidence.
The costars are a good bunch. Armin Müller-Stahl is particularly strong (as how could he not be) as a former East German military man who runs "security" errands for Skarssen, and Brián F O'Byrne is equally good as a hit man who walks around with all the temerity of an accountant. Naomi Watts is not too implausible as the tireless district attorney who is backing Salinger on this round, until he warns her off for the sake of her career and her family's safety.
New Yorkers will be amused by the extravant set piece in the Guggenheim Museum, their pleasure in this not quite over-the-top shoot-out dampened only slightly by the awareness that the actual museum, almost visibly constructed with plaster of Paris and chicken wire, would take the barrage of bullets a lot worse than it does in the movie. Frank Lloyd Wright's celebrated ramp makes a great set, and the video installation that hums away behind the blazing guns (miraculously undamaged, of course, even when the glass skylight falls in) plays in ironic contrast to the foregrounded mayhem. Not the least entertaining feature of this scene is the crowd of shrieking museum-goers, so realistically unhinged by the ruckus that they don't seem to be acting. New Yorkers will nod sagely, knowing that only the Guggenheim would lend itself to such fireworks — at least in the age of CGI. They'll know all about real banking conspiracies, too. (February 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press