The International (review)

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Bank on Thrills

Corruption! High finance! Political murder! Clive Owen!

Mmmm, Clive Owen…

Boo, naughty banks!

The timing of this smart, savvy thriller couldn’t be better, what with its corporate-banks-are-evil theme and a hero who yells at banksters that he wants “some fucking justice.” And of course Clive Owen is always welcome on my movie screen: The International is like the answer to my wish after his one bit in The Bourne Identity in which he so burned up the screen as an assassinating spook that I wanted the whole movie to be about him. And here it is.
The International, from Run Lola Run wunderkind Tom Tykwer and newcomer screenwriter Eric Singer, is so good at whipping up global conspiracies concocted in boardrooms that we might as well put on our tinfoil hats and declare this part of a real conspiracy, a pacifier thrown our way by our capitalistic overlords: if we’re getting our justice jollies voyeuristically via Owen’s angry Interpol agent, then we’re not out there carrying pitchfords and peasant torches ourselves. Damn, but this movie is satisfying in a lot of ways. It’s one of those movies that feels like it goes on forever, but in a good way, like you don’t ever want it to end, and are sorry when it does.

And I don’t mean only in the getting-some-fucking-justice sense, either. Surprisingly old-fashioned in its adherence to solid, unpretentious suspense, The International is perfectly exhilarating for its craftsmanship and low-key style, too. We join Owen (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shoot ’Em Up) and Naomi Watts (Eastern Promises, The Painted Veil) — as a New York City district attorney — in procedural progress as they try to nail the ominously monikered International Bank of Business and Credit for some Very Bad Things that could, arguably, be deemed crimes against humanity. Owen’s agent is twitchy in his hindered authority: he’s ex-Scotland Yard, eager to do some real police work to bring down this banking bastards (he’s crossed swords with them before, of course), and doesn’t want to be limited to Interpol’s information-gathering mandate. Watts is his unruffled counterpart, sleekly professional and calmly competent. (Refreshingly, their investigation is not complicated by romance, though the two actors sizzle with creative chemistry together onscreen.)

As they trot around the globe — Berlin, Milan, Istanbul — the feeling that we’re watching a great episode of Law and Order: Europe, all coolly elegant Sherlock Holmesian stuff, gives way to superbly executed action excitement, such as a footchase through a crowded Turkish street market and a shootout at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City that is an instant cinematic classic — it reminds you why filmmakers always resort to gunplay, because when it’s pulled off well, it is uniquely thrilling. Few filmmakers can do it this well. And then come the plot twists: things I never saw coming and should have. At one point — during the Guggenheim sequence, in fact — everything I thought I knew about what was going on took a 180 turn… and then moments later took another 180 turn that, were normal physics involved here, should have taken us back to where we started, but instead takes us into a whole new realm. It’s awe-inspiring not just in a storytelling sense — how wonderful to be genuinely startled by a movie! — and also in an artistic one: so there really are still filmmakers out there who aren’t content merely to do work that is good enough, but better than we ever might have expected.

I didn’t realize it till long after the movie ended, but there’s a huge plot hole that should have ruined that Guggenheim sequence. But I find that I don’t care. The International is so entertaining that I can forgive it that one small flaw. It’s like 1984 introduced to The Conversation by Tyler Durden. And who’da thunk we’d ever be able to say that about any movie?

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Fri, Feb 13, 2009 6:14pm

Just returned from seeing it.

Re: the Guggenheim shootout. Wow. To say more would spoil a lot, but it is without argument the best shootout sequence since Heat. But what was the plot hole? I’m looking back and can’t think of one…

Mon, Feb 23, 2009 5:48pm

Heh, when I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought (only half-joking) to myself: Since when does Clive Owen do documentaries?

I haven’t seen it yet, looking forward to it.
After “Children of Men,” it’s going to take a pretty awful movie to take him off the top of my list.