"Sometimes you find your destiny on the road you took to avoid it."
Jonas Skarssen: "What do you want?"
A dubious international bank with unethical practises lies at the centre of this cracking action-thriller that draws evident inspiration from such films as Michael Clayton and the Jason Bourne series. Helmed by German director Tom Tykwer (to date probably best known as the man behind the acclaimed high-voltage thriller Run Lola Run), The International commences as an intriguing slow-burn thriller before deflating in its closing act, and ultimately not quite delivering on its potential. Despite the reshoots that brought about a major release date shift (from August 2008 to February 2009), Tykwer's crisp thriller is too flabby; fundamentally playing out as a string of well-shot but usually uninvolving dialogue scenes interspersed with an occasional exhilarating action set-piece. First-time screenwriter Eric Singer is unable to suitably handle the fantastic premise, discarding imaginative ideas in favour of lazy, generic plotting. This "relevant" picture possesses the look and feel of a thriller, but not the heart or soul of one. The excellent trailers implied a product considerably superior to the disappointing final result. Viewers seeking an intelligent break from Bourne-style action-oriented thrillers will have to search elsewhere.
In The International, dedicated Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) suspects deadly dealings at a high-profile Luxembourg-based financial institution known as the IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit - a ficticious creation, of course). Louis collaborates with Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Watts) following the murder of their mutual colleague. The two become determined to bring the IBBC to justice as they uncover illegal activities including money laundering, arms trading and the destabilisation of governments. However, the bank is prone to assassinating those who get too close to exposing its profitable warmongering. As the investigation intensifies, the protagonists quickly become the next target of the IBBC which is additionally taking steps to dead-end the search.
The International should have been an intelligent, timely thriller that entertains as much as it rivets. However, requisite character development is absent and it consequently isn't alluring enough. On a positive note, Tykwer is a competent director. Tykwer's camera angles perfectly capture the intricate sets, and Frank Griebe's exquisite cinematography additionally takes advantage of the atmospheric European locales. Virtually every scene has a lively visual quality, and the director's stylistic touch is this film's greatest asset. Tykwer has a terrific eye for framing, but unfortunately he has a tin ear for dialogue. The characters inhabiting the well-composed shots speak in lumps of banal exposition, their faces unflatteringly set in frowns. As a cerebral thriller (something this production evidently aspires to be for the most part), The International lacks appeal.
The film's centrepiece is undoubtedly the elaborate shootout in Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum. This lies at the heart of the film's marketing campaign, and for good reason. This sequence was added after-the-fact on account of poor test screenings in order to increase the action quotient. While it's the action highlight of the movie, don't let the trailers fool you into watching the movie on the promise of gunplay alone.
For the spectacular Guggenheim Museum shootout, a convincing full-size replica of the building was constructed on a German soundstage. This sequence transforms the modern architectural wonder into a large-scale shooting gallery, leaving the place riddled with bullet-holes, broken glass, blood, dead bodies and expended shell casings. Preposterous, yes, but it's a masterpiece of contemporary action cinema. The cinematography is outstanding, as is the music, sound effects, special effects and acting. The International is a rare animal in this age of cinema - an R-rated picture. The blood spilt during the Guggenheim sequence is frankly astounding, resulting in an action scene that's about as breathtaking as it is dramatically unnecessary. Its inclusion indicates the filmmakers' tacit acceptance that the predominantly cerebral thriller is a dying breed. With this in mind, it's probably no surprise that Tykwer's effort is struggling to earn back its $50 million budget at the box office.
In addition to the Guggenheim shootout, The International is infused with suspenseful chases and a thrilling execution. But a few scenes subsequent to the Guggenheim shootout, the film hits a speed bump and clearly has no idea where to go. For such an intricate plot, the conclusion is anticlimactic. The flick fails in its resolution because it reduces all the subplots and developments to the simplest of equations: one man pointing a gun at another. For a production that wishes to be more than an ordinary thriller, The International finishes on an all-too-familiar note. The ending is also too frustratingly perplexing and ambiguous. It merely satisfying the audience's desire for bloodlust, and solves nothing. Perhaps most disappointing is that it probably could've been fixed. With snappier editing and a stronger sense of finality, The International could have been tagged with a far more satisfying conclusion.
Green screenwriter Eric Singer is simply the wrong man for the job. His script fails to offer insight into the bank's unethical practises, instead wasting its duration generating subplots concerning the investigation behind the bank's latest assassination and the pursuit for said assassin. For 90 minutes, The International is a great thriller despite some lengthy, draggy sections. But Singer has no idea where to go past these first 90 minutes; clueless as to how he should appropriately end this thing.
Louis Salinger: "I want some fucking justice."
As for the cast, the always-reliable Clive Owen displays great acting skills, reminding us that he'd be a terrific James Bond. Owen seems right at home as the hot-headed, passionate Interpol agent Louis Salinger. He ably delivers as both an action man and as a smart operator with a patent sense of right and wrong. Owen is nicely countered by Naomi Watts as the pragmatic Eleanor Whitman. Watts is criminally underused, however. Her character is not only underdeveloped...she's entirely undeveloped. The actress is far too good for this underwritten supporting role, as she stands around and functions as a liability.
The extraordinary Armin Mueller-Stahl is the most memorable performer for his stillness in a role of great intensity, depth and resonance. Mueller-Stahl is a truly inspired piece of casting. There's also the adequate Ulrich Thomsen as cold and callous bank chief Jonas Skarssen.
For all its serious intent, Tom Tykwer's The International proves to be a perilously naff thriller. It's an exquisitely-filmed and crafted flick, but the script is problematic. The screenplay is filled with clunky dialogue and ludicrous plotting, not to mention it also lacks the vital wit and depth which would allow it to be a topflight thinking-man's thriller. Tykwer's flick additionally contains characters too dull, not to mention most of the suspense falls flat. This could have been 2009's Michael Clayton, but inexperienced scripter Singer is no Tony Gilroy. I really wanted to love this movie, but the final quarter is far too detrimental. Mark this one as a missed opportunity.