Release Date: Feb. 13
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writers: Eric Singer
Cinematographer: Frank Griebe
Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Studio/Run Time: Columbia, 118 mins.
Confused global thriller pivots on Owen’s star turn
Given another week of routine front-page reports of the nation’s top bankers flayed in front of Congress, moody global thriller The International appears to arrive at an opportune time. On paper, the film casts Clive Owen as the everyman redeemer of a culture of amorality at one of the world’s largest banks, where murder for hire and arms deals are business as usual. In a more perfect Hollywood union, the movie would invite us to a collective throwdown of that destitute system of needless wealth and excess, one very well-appointed gun battle at a time.
In reality, Owen is no one’s idea of an everyman, and The International turns out to be an adamantly understated movie without a populist impulse in sight. True, it casts two photogenic actors and offers a thriller of sorts that fluidly jumps from Berlin to Istanbul to New York. But from its indeterminable first sequence, in which a man suddenly vomits and falls to the ground, it’s clear the movie feels no particular obligations to its audience.
The truth is, outside of a couple sequences that clumsily attempt to engage the perils of globalization, the movie is not really about the sins of the bank. The villainous executives make up a bland cohort that exists to provide a fittingly invincible foil to Owen, whose ragged performance becomes this confused movie’s main attraction. Naomi Watts plays a decent sidekick as an American prosecutor who aids the investigation, but this really weathers down to the brand of roguish characters Owen played in earlier roles in movies like Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, before Hollywood called with any regularity. He visibly struggles with the commercial demands of a movie like this and the antiheroic edge the role requires, and his part is a monument to both his awkward embrace of celebrity and his murky, restrained impulses as a performer.
For his part, director Tom Tykwer is content to let his star explore those morose recesses, as out of place as they often feel. As the typically frenetic director of such panoramic entertainment as Run Lola Run, Tykwer himself navigates uncertain territory here as he dials back his big-bang instincts to a studied, quiet restraint. Outside of a bloody gun battle at the Guggenheim Museum, a gorgeous sequence that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, Tykwer stages the action with near indifference. The relaxed, unadorned pace will inevitably confuse an audience conditioned to expect an action movie, and it only has the effect of further shifting the focus to Owen and his weird, beguiling struggle to hold it together.
If the listlessness becomes too much, it’s helpful to keep in mind that any movie about the evils of corporate culture that’s backed by a Hollywood studio has an inescapable identity crisis. Released by Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony, The International could never have taken on its lofty subject with any real force, and so the Faustian struggle that seems to play out in the back of Owen’s mind the entire movie is almost poignant by the end. None of this makes much sense, but that’s certainly not lost on him.