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Why do I keep questioning the work of Tom Tykwer? True, I didn’t know that The International was his film until way after the marketing onslaught, but even then I still held a little trepidation, although much less than when I first saw the trailers looking kind of mediocre. The guy most definitely has the goods and I’m glad English language producers are showing the confidence to start handing him big budget flicks. Much like a Marc Forster, known for small scale story-heavy movies getting a shot at directing a Bond film, Tykwer has steadily been building up to this point, helming an action thriller with a fantastically orchestrated shoot ‘em up (no pun intended on the pretty bad Clive Owen starrer of that name) in the Guggenheim Museum. While I will admit to not being adverse to seeing him direct another German-language film in the vein of Lola rennt or a small indie like the Kieslowski script Heaven, I can’t complain about the ones he has been making with American cash.

On paper, the plot seemed a bit stale. So some international bank is using its power and money to make a run in the small arms trade to control the debt of ninety-nine percent of all warfare in the world. Wow, our money being saved in CDs and savings accounts is going to defense contractors and third world nations to stage coups and create mayhem. Well guess what, our government is probably doing that exact same thing with our tax dollars. Who cares? It’s the same old story and really not very intriguing to watch. So, let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film isn’t really about our money or watching wars break out with bank backing. Instead it is the hunt for a source to take the corporation, namely Ulrich Thomsen’s bank president Skarssen himself, down and create a sense of justice for the law enforcement and witnesses that have been murdered as a result of taking a stand against them. It is about seeking retribution for humans who sacrificed their lives for what they thought was morally right; and those my friend are stakes I can get behind.

Owen’s Louis Salinger is Interpol and Naomi Watts’ Eleanor Whitman works for the Manhattan DA’s office, and both are hot on the trail of opening their long running case against the IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit) up. After an agent is assassinated in public without a trace of foul play, Salinger begins to dig deeper and find connections between defense contractors and IBBC brass. This series of uncovering relationships and grudges leads to more deaths as well as more evidence of nefarious activities. Both leading agents find their bosses getting more and more restless, as well as scared about coming close to a truth they themselves don’t feel comfortable unearthing, and eventually need to step outside the box to find more. The real chase starts when they identify the assassin being utilized to carry out the bank’s more sensitive hits, leading Owen into the Frank Lloyd Wright structure for an adrenaline rush of a sequence involving machineguns, innocent bystanders, unlikely comradery between two people you anticipate being adversaries, and a lot of bullet holes in a setting that wouldn’t like the destruction wrought much at all.

It is a scene like this climatic fight that sets The International apart from most other films of its kind. Not even thinking about whether they were allowed to shoot the exchange in the actual museum—I’d believe no, but it is very convincing to the contrary—the sheer idea of putting an all-out battle on the circuitous ramp of the famous building is inspired. With the only exit being the ramp itself, with enemies stationed at the bottom and all along the path our protagonist must take, you really feel caught up in the action. A few surprises crop up, like a flak jacket and a nicely used wheelchair decoy, as well as realistic blood, the need to replenish bullet clips, and injuries to those we know won’t end up dying … just yet anyways. It is the kind of scene that would play for explosions and carnage in a lesser film, but here is chock-full of plot and carefully planned out consequences. Not only that, but our “action hero” Owen is an intelligence agent, not even issued a gun. So let’s just say he isn’t as smooth, or confident, as you would expect in a scene like this.

What happens will sometimes surprise you throughout. Not everything concludes in a clean-cut way, with loose ends tied or character’s arcs never necessarily completed. Instead, what we get is a literal translation of Armin Mueller-Stahl’s comment about the difference between truth and fiction—“it has to make sense in fiction”. Decisions in real life don’t always become black and white, but instead lie in the grey areas of right and wrong. We can’t live life to perfection, we must make the tough choices to survive and find a semblance of that utopia we seek. Much in that way, the film takes turns that give us a result I think we want from the film, just not in the way we might have thought it would have occurred. But that is okay, if not better, in the long run. An investigation as far-reaching as this one can never be fully accomplished because things will always be getting in the way. People are replaceable and even if you rid a corporation of its superiors, there will always be someone else to take the place.

So, while you do get closure at the conclusion, it is not complete. And I love that aspect. Tykwer takes a Hollywood genre and instills a bit of intelligence, along with scripter Eric Singer, (I don’t want to forget about him). Not only that, but the guy gets some nice performances, especially from Owen, Mueller-Stahl, Thomsen, and probably my favorite character, that of the “consultant”, Brian F. O’Byrne. Watts is okay, but at times I feel a bit out of place. No matter though, the places themselves make up for that by giving us some spectacular locales. Not one to be shy about showing his home country of Germany, you also get to see a little of France and NYC along with the gorgeous scenery of Istanbul, Turkey. There really isn’t much to be disappointed about here. It’s an entertainingly told, intelligent tale spanning the world and put on by some great acting. I can’t wait to see what Tykwer pulls out of his sleeve next, but I do know I won’t be questioning its relevance anymore until the end credits roll.

The International 8/10

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photography:
[1] Naomi Watts as “Eleanor Whitman” and Clive Owen as “Louis Salinger” in Columbia Pictures’ thriller THE INTERNATIONAL.
[2] Clive Owen as “Louis Salinger” and Armin Mueller-Stahl as “Wilhelm Wexler” in Columbia Pictures’ thriller THE INTERNATIONAL.
©2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Beverly Blvd LLC All Rights Reserved.

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