Sunday, February 22, 2009
Certain genres I'm a sucker for, and the globehopping thriller is one of them. Exotic locales, urban jungles, the fate of the world at stake -- only a complete nincompoop could blow it, as Marc Forster demonstrated by making Quantum of Solace as visually drab and dramatically inert as possible. Tom Tykwer, in directing The International, avoids the same mistake with the former problem and half-manages to sidestep the latter. Filmed on location in the likes of Berlin, Milan and Istanbul, The International has color and movement, potentially charismatic leads, a memorable action set-piece, and a monolithic villain that couldn't be timelier. Where Eric Singer's screenplay errs is by starting in what is really the middle of the story.
In what may be the most chaste screen coupling of beautiful people since Tom Cruise and Demi Moore handled the truth in A Few Good Men, Clive Owen and Naomi Watts play, respectively, an Interpol agent and a New York City Assistant D.A., with the oddly literary names of Louis Salinger and Eleanor Whitman. Perhaps this is meant to underscore that these are characters more comfortable behind their desks, living inside their heads, out of their depth in the thriller conventions soon to unfold. Actually they unfold immediately, when Salinger witnesses the assassination of a colleague in Germany, and sometime later when both he and Whitman investigate the shooting of the potential Italian prime minister. The murders --and all subsequent ones -- have something to do with the efforts of a global bank named IBBC to monopolize the debt of third-world nations while simultaneously covering their tracks, and while it's a refreshing change not to be overburdened with exposition, a moment or two's pause to enable the audience to get its bearings would have helped considerably.
It's also an interesting choice, but I think ultimately a mistake, to make Salinger and Whitman already colleagues before the movie proper begins. Salinger is depicted as a sort of rogue agent married to his work, with ominous hints of A Troubled Past that are never really explained or utilized; while Whitman is a sharp, ballsy gal with a husband and son, only that vulnerability is never exploited by IBBC. (SMERSH they ain't.) Despite the lack of love story, Cruise and Moore have never had screen partners as fitting as each other in A Few Good Men, by puncturing each other's considerable egos, for once they generously shared the same space. Owen and Watts aren't megastars, though; they're character-leads who are framed a bit too punily in The International, dwarfed by the mise-en-scene rather than elevated by it. And while it confounds expectations that they don't jump in the sack, there's not enough of a relationship left -- especially since we're not privy to how it started -- to give reason to care.
One of my favorite actors, Owen at his best resembles Bogart in his ability to play different characters by emphasizing a certain aspect of his personality: sadism in Croupier; cunning in Inside Man; self-deprecation in Children of Men. Yet as Salinger he's asked to be wide-eyed and unhinged, and it doesn't really suit him. (A recurring motif, involving his ringing ear, is cribbed from Children of Men and should have been excised.) A more emotionally distant performer, Watts has exuded genuine warmth only once, in Peter Jackson's overwrought King Kong remake. Whitman is a role that should suit her, and does, but she's always on the periphery instead of directly involved in the action.
Which is a shame, because the handful of overt action or suspense sequences in The International are all ably orchestrated by Tykwer, who abandons the hyperediting of his first and still most successful feature, Run Lola Run, for a cool and elegant style that mostly serves him well here. Already much praise has been bestowed on the standout scene an hour into the picture, a frenetic shootout down the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. It's certainly one of the most dazzling action sequences of recent years, yet I agree with Ed Howard's observation that had Tykwer shot the scene with the same methodical pacing and wide-angle lenses as the rest of the film it may have been an instant classic, comparable to the train-station chase climax in Carlito's Way. (I'm not a De Palma fan, but there are certain elements he makes good use of, and space and time are two of them.)
I would also like to suggest -- not only to Tykwer, whose work here in his first commercial feature is promising enough that I hope he tries again, but all contemporary action-thriller directors -- that while these are indeed grim times, that need not mean any semblance of humor should be eliminated. Archetypal movie villains (Hannibal Lecter, Goldfinger, HAL-9000, Tracy Flick) have proven themselves quite funny without losing their edge, but the baddies behind the bank in The International (led by Armin Mueller-Stahl, looking like Laurence Olivier might have in Marathon Man had he misplaced his dental instruments) are all witless duds in expensive suits. World conquest undoubtedly has its rewards, but doesn't look nearly as fun as it used to be.