DVD Release Date:  June 9, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  February 13, 2009
Rating:  R (for some sequences of violence and strong language)
Genre:  Thriller
Run Time:  118 min.
Director:  Tom Tykwer
Cast:  Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, Brian F. O’Byrne

Literary thrillers are a staple of airplane rides and beachside vacations.  It’s a tried-and-true genre that has made the likes of authors Clancy, Connelly, Crichton, Grisham and Koontz filthy rich even if it hasn’t brought them any Nobel or Booker prizes.  They’re not high art, but they sell for a reason.  The International is their cinematic equivalent, and though it’s as instantly disposable as those paperback counterparts it’s also as equally riveting.

An elaborate conspiracy fuels the The International, and its villain is eerily relevant: a bank.  An international banking conglomerate, to be more precise, called the IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit).  Their reach extends into every arena, from business and financial markets to governments and the illegal organizations that play within those realms. 

That presence allows the IBBC to work covertly behind the activities of corporate and world leaders to achieve its ends: controlling all global conflicts by controlling the debts that finance both sides.  Even philanthropic investments are mere pawn moves in an international chess game where our planet is the board.  In this age of the credit crunch and housing crisis that was largely instigated by tactics like predatory lending and debt creation, what better bad guy could there be?

As insidious as the IBBC’s goals are, the means they employ to reach them are truly evil – including murder.   Their schemes become threatened when renegade Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) get too close to the truth during a broader case involving the IBBC’s investments in Third World arms trade.

Key players in the investigation are mysteriously killed – first a fellow agent, then a potential whistleblower, and finally even an Italian politician.  The IBBC executes its tactics with impunity because, quite frankly, who’s going to stop them when every country and corporation has a vested interest in their stability?

That’s a distilled synopsis of a complex story where names, places and information occasionally fly by and details can be lost – but the central narrative remains clearly intact.  It’s densely-plotted but well-told, revisiting key names and points of exposition along the way to help you maintain your mental scorecard while also staging a few action sequences to give it a gritty kick. (An extensive bullet-riddled shootout at New York’s Guggenheim museum provides a spectacular centerpiece that ranks among the best of the genre.)

Despite the plot-driven nature of the script, The International is also deftly intelligent in its machinations.  Screenwriter Eric Warren Singer has taken great care in the details, how they’re revealed, always filling potential plot holes, and even throws in at least one character-twist I didn’t see coming.  Sure, convenient facts (like a mysterious suspect’s metallic fake leg) occasionally lead to major investigative breakthroughs, but those minor cheats are forgivable as they’re not lazy whims used to circumvent tight narrative corners (plus they keep the film moving along).

The complexities of the story leave little time for character depth, which makes the cast’s efforts all the more impressive.  Clive Owen combines obsession, paranoia and world-weariness to give his Interpol agent conflicting layers and vigor, Naomi Watts is an intelligent yet spirited screen-presence (in what could’ve been a thankless role), and the script wisely avoids shoehorning in a romance between the two.  Oscar-Nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine) and Broadway vet Brian F. O’Byrne (Doubt) are effectively mysterious as (respectively) a composed-yet-ruthless organizer for IBBC’s nefarious deeds and a nameless “consultant” hitman who’s as ordinary as he is menacing.

German director Tom Tykwer makes his first foray into big-time studio fare, bringing his pulsating style to material perfectly suited for it.  Granted, The International isn’t as kinetic as Tykwer’s inspired debut Run Lola Run - nor should it be.  There is a steadier rhythm here that renders multiple virtues: consistent tension, escalating suspense and a rather palpable energy, yet never too hyperactive. The film eschews current trends of over-stylized hand-held cinematography and non-stop editing that can often leave your head spinning.  The end result is a taut thriller that doesn’t move too fast for its own good. 

The International even makes time for some thought-provoking notions (“The truth means responsibility, which is why everyone dreads it.”) and moral debates (when an entity has positioned itself outside the system of justice, is going outside that system to attain justice morally defensible?) that resonate in our post-9/11 world. Still, as challenging as those ideas are, they’re ultimately (and thankfully) secondary to the film’s primary purpose of crafting a solid action-thriller that entertains.  The International fulfills that purpose, impressively.

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