Sunday, January 10, 2010

The International

Tom Tykwer's 'The International' is an entertaining conflation of '70s conspiracy thriller, contemporary paranoia (banks as hives of villainy - tres credit crunch!), and architecture porn. The film opens with a tense meeting between an inside man and his handler; the inside man is assassinated moments later; Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) can only look on in horror. The scene plays out in front of the Hauptbahnhof Berlin. This will not be the last glass-fronted building with which Tykwer fills the screen. Not by a long chalk.

He also has an affinity for setting his characters adrift in vast, impersonal interiors.

'The International' isn't just architecture porn, it's modernist erotica. Berlin's Hauptbahnhof and Judisches Museum, Wolfsburg's Autostadt and New York's Guggenheim (Frank Lloyd Wright - yeah, baby!) all in the same film. Now throw in Clive Owen with three-day stubble and a chip on his shoulder and no compunction about cutting loose with an Uzi. Plus Naomi Watts making a scarf and an overcoat and screeds of expositional dialogue seem as alluring as the negligee-draped deshabille of a Victoria's Secret model. Plus a cluster of indeterminate European bad guys who wear dark suits and drive Audis und haff verry strainch axzents.

No doubt about it, Tykwer nails the '70s-style elements: Salinger and fellow agent Eleanor Whitman (Watts) location-hop from one scene to the next, their pursuit of the truth a blur of airports, offices and those obligatory glass-fronted buildings. Clues are tenaciously dredged up from the ebb-tide of lies. Leads are seized upon. But a mysterious operative known only as The Consultant (Brian F O'Byrne) always seems to be one step ahead of them. Romantic subplot? Fuhgeddaboudit! Salinger and Whitman are too busy chasing suspects, dodging assassins' bullets and squaring off against superiors who want to shut down the investigation to indulge in anything of that nature.

And on the subject of assassins, 'The International' gets its 'Day of the Jackal'/'Three Days of the Condor' groove on at every available opportunity. There are political assassins, assassins who assassinate the assassins and assassination teams who assassinate fucking everyone. Or try to. They haven't reckoned with Clive Owen flexing his Uzicentric action hero muscles. Remember that late-period Roger Moore Bond movie where 007 cheerfully trashes a glass factory during a fight? Dude's a frickin' lightweight. Our Clive trashes the Guggenheim. Way-hey: architecture porn and gunplay in perfect harmony.

The Guggenheim shoot-out is to 'The International' what the car chase is to 'Bullitt', what the fist fight is to 'The Quiet Man' and what the deep-rooted cerebral existentialism is to 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen'. Okay, I was lying about the last one. But you get what I mean. The Guggenheim shoot-out is the live-or-die massive set-piece by which 'The International' stands or falls. And I guess it sorts legions of movie-goers with their many and varied and multi-faceted personalities squarely into one of two camps: those who want to see a film-maker get all John Woo on an art gallery's ass and those who don't.

The Guggenheim shoot-out, while slightly stretching the bounds of credulity (it takes the cops how long to get there?), is superbly handled. Tykwer's direction, fairly anonymous during the procedural scenes, comes to the fore here. It's one of those rare shoot-outs in modern cinema that is properly edited and spatially aware. Remember how weird the nightclub shoot-out was in 'Collateral', the interior seeming to stretch out and then fold in upon itself (maybe the scriptwriter was behind the Warren Commission's "magic bullet" theory)? None of that mularkey here. When Tykwer does occasionally opt for elliptical editing, it's not for the sake of MTV stylisation but to emphasise his characters' disorientation.

I'd be lying if I tried to pass 'The International' off as a modern classic or a spot-on throwback to the edgy, cynical thrillers of yore. It's not perfect by any means. The pacing is uneven. The tone is little too po-faced. Salinger and Whitman are never really fleshed out; Salinger's potentially intriguing backstory is tossed off in a couple of lines of dialogue. Naming the protagonists after famous American writers just annoys (I kept wanting the German bad guys to be called Schiller and Goethe). The ending is rushed and never really delves into the implications of Salinger crossing the line and going renegade.

And yet ... and yet ...

I enjoyed 'The International' more than any thriller I've seen since the 'Bourne' trilogy. Clive Owen has moodiness and brooding intensity in spades. When he snarls that he wants the truth, you'd better believe it. As much as Daniel Craig impressed me as the latest incarnation of Bond (and I'd place him second after Connery), I almost wish Owen had got the role. I think he could have done something really interesting with it - I can certainly imagine him conjuring the twisted, embittered, fucked-up Bond of the last few novels. Watts takes a next-to-nothing role and imbues it with her customary gravitas and fierce intelligence. She's one of the finest actresses around and if she appeared in a movie where she did nothing for 90 minutes but read the telephone directory, you'd sit down, shut up and pay attention.

'The International' is graced with a talented cast (Armin Mueller-Stahl, no stranger to delivering subtle yet complex performances, gives a masterclass in compromised morality), a cluster of effectively executed set-pieces and a coldly precise but atmospheric visual style. It might not hit the heights of Tykwer's earlier 'Run, Lola, Run', but it's a hell of a lot better than his horribly misconceived 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer', and - as an exercise in capturing the "feel" of a '70s political thriller - it's a lot more successful, for my money, than Spielberg's creepily manipulative 'Munich'.


Evil Dead Junkie said...

Well damnit now I need to see The International.

Did you see Duplicity? Owen's other corporate espionage centered throwback from this last year? It too is surprisingly pretty good.

Samuel Wilson said...

My problem with The International was a certain predictable hamfistedness that came through most blatantly, alas, in the Guggenheim scene. I thought the power of these conspiracies was supposed to be their invisibility. That gets compromised a little when the conspiracy sends a small army of hitmen into a museum with guns blazing. But as a sort of architecture fetishist myself I did find the film pretty fascinating in spots.

Neil Fulwood said...

Evil Dead Junkie - haven't seen 'Duplicity', but on your recommendation I'm adding it to the rental list.

Sam - yeah, you're right. 'The International' is flawed. The whole business with the assassination team left me wondering why they bothered hiring a freelance hitman in the first place when they already had that amount of manpower and weaponry ready for immediate deployment? And why not wait till Owen and O'Byrne had left the Guggenheim and whack them in a drive-by? Still, I have to say I enjoyed it in a "guilty pleasures" kind of a way.

Ed Howard said...

I liked this film too, it's great to see some appreciation of it. Yeah, it has its problems, foremost among them the fact that it's formulaic and gives Naomi Watts almost nothing to do. But I loved its visual precision, as your screen captures and writing perfectly express: all those shots of the protagonists lost within overwhelming architectural compositions, all that glass and concrete towering over them. The film is undeniably gorgeous, in ways that go beyond mere eye candy. The institutional evils of the film's villains are echoed in the buildings that Twyker shoots.

And yes, Mueller-Stahl gives an amazing performance, unexpectedly infusing his corrupt businesmman with some depth and substance in a film where most of the characters are made of cardboard.

Neil Fulwood said...

Ed - thanks for the comment. There's a delicious irony in the fact that so many of the buildings are glass-fronted (transparency) and the interiors vast (openness) and yet the film focuses on what is hidden, what is kept from view.

J.D. said...

"The International' isn't just architecture porn, it's modernist erotica."

Well said! This film is gorgeous to look at while also paying homage to all those great paranoid thrillers from the 1970s. While THE INTERNATIONAL is certainly not a perfect film I was willing to overlook its flaws because I found it so damn entertaining.

And I'm glad that Naomi Watts and Clive Owen's characters didn't hook up during the film. It just would have been awkward and instead the film just goes about its business.