Conceived as an entirely different movie almost two decades before it reached theaters, Tom Tykwer’s The International (2009) is a brilliantly realized, rough and tumble, taught and tenacious espionage thriller costarring Clive Owen as a formidable man of mystery embroiled in a monumental scheme and surrounded by treason, corruption and murder. Few – if any – contemporary thrillers can hold a candle to The International for its enriching Hitchockian flair; superbly written, expertly acted and gorgeously filmed by cinematographer, Frank Griebe on locations throughout Europe. Griebe gives us a metaphor for the transparency of a vast multi-national consortium of villains operating inside a rapid succession of monolithic steel and glass uber-contemporary superstructures, intensely impersonal shrines to corrupt capitalism and behind which the daily business of politically sanctioned deceptions runs deep and cruel. It has been a very long time since any American cloak and dagger yarn has so impressed, and very likely to remain longer still before another does as well. The International is blessed in virtually all its accoutrements, starting with a brilliant script and ending with its two exquisite stars; the aforementioned Owen and Naomi Watts, who can truly hold their own amidst this thought-numbing, often haunted chaos, sanctioned and supervised by a world-renown organization determined to silence all pending inquiries at the point of a pistol. The International succeeds twofold; first, as a deftly executed actioner, with stunning set pieces as heart-palpitating as any yet put on the screen, and second, as an intellectually stimulating, edge-of-your-seat spy caper that always keeps the viewer guessing.
The onus and praise herein must go to screenwriter, Eric Singer who, in 2001, approached Tykwer with an outline loosely based on the BCCI scandal that sent shockwaves through the banking community in the late 1980s. Then, the BCCI was the 3rd largest independent bank in the world, funneling approximately 70% of all black market monies to and from drug cartels, terrorist cells and other spurious clientele around the globe; all told, approximately 20 billion annually in a vast money-laundering enterprise meant to ‘legitimize’ their ill-gotten gains under a veil of seemingly legitimate investments, while providing a protective shell against inquiries about their illegitimate operations. An investigation by New York D.A. Rob Morganthal put an abrupt end to the BCCI’s dealings, though arguably, it did not end the supremacy of the underworld organization hiding behind it. The bank simply closed its doors and went underground. Even more regrettable, no public arrests were ever made.
Fast track to 2009 and Singer’s reworking of his high concept and voila - The International; a cleverly camouflaged ‘what if’ scenario wrapped inside the enigma of a harrowing ‘race against time’ whodunit. Here is a thriller to really get the blood pumping; Clive Owen perfectly cast as Lewis Salinger, a tough-as-nails and relentless pitbull of an Interpol investigator with a gnawing need to expose the men responsible for the death of his partner, Thomas Schumer (Ian Burfield). Salinger is bad news for the baddies. And yet, he forgoes the usual butch trappings of the trademarked belligerent vigilante cum action guy. Instead, Salinger uses deductive logic to piece together his puzzle, defending his discoveries under a shield of violence only when no other means of communication will suffice. Take the epic deluge staged midway into our story and supposedly taking place at the Guggenheim as a primary example; Salinger frustratingly confronting the nameless/shameless assassin (Brían F. O'Byrne) responsible for untold murders and one very public political assassination; their gun-crazed détente coming much too late to be of any use to Salinger; the BCCI already taking out a hit on their most valuable – though nevertheless expendable – player.
Owen is at the peak of his prowess as an actor here. He gives us something behind the eye – a hint of self-discovery and a revelation unearthed with bitter anguish as his alter ego investigator unapologetically attempts to keep his marked man alive by any means necessary, merely to pump him for information. It is a callous and fruitless endeavor, the wounds inflicted on the assassin by a small army of thuggish gunmen proving fatal before any great reveal can be extorted from this dying man. Owen gives us an unvarnished and unsentimental view of the hero; forced into his heroism and angrily incapable of remaining above it all as he bitterly kicks away the corpse he has dragged from the museum to relative safety, merely to spare himself a police investigation.
Two other actors primarily make The International click as it should; the aforementioned Naomi Watts, appropriately unsettled and marginally ‘in love’ with Salinger, herein cast as Manhattan Assistant D.A., Eleanor Whitman, and, the superbly underplayed, Armin Mueller-Stahl (as double agent, Wilhelm Wexler). One of the most refreshing aspects about The International is that it avoids any obvious ‘love affair’ between Salinger and Whitman. Theirs is a sort of X-File-ish platonic affection; Watts lending an air of grave concern that may or may not extend into a sexual relationship, if ever the two could simply surrender their roles in this game of high stakes espionage and simply gravitate toward the obvious – if invisible – chemistry percolating between them. As for Mueller-Stahl, here is an actor who can emanate volumes of sinister cynicism with a flick of his eyebrow, his near monotone and very low key delivery of each line of dialogue, riveting as the audience – like Salinger – strains to learn more.
Clive Owen is top billed in The International, a rumpled Interpol agent, out of shape, sporting two day old stubble and a scowl that could freeze time. Salinger presumes he is flying under the radar in an investigation of the IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit). But after his partner, Thomas Schumer (Ian Burfield) drops dead of an apparent heart attack outside Berlin’s Central Station moments after having finished a rather problematic first contact with IBBC executive, Andre Clement (Georges Bigot), Salinger suspects Thomas was somehow poisoned in plain sight to induce his heart failure. Salinger’s dander is further ruffled when a scheduled meeting with Jonas Skarrsen (Ulrich Tomsen) at IBBC’s headquarters in Luxembourg (*actually the Autostadt headquarters for Volkswagen in Berlin) leads to more closed mouths and doors than anticipated. Back in New York, Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) agrees with Salinger’s assessment. Darker forces are at work inside the IBBC.
Reunited in Milan, Salinger and Whitman pursue an audience with Umberto Calvini (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi), a ‘former’ arms manufacturer and presently a very popular candidate in Italy’s prime ministerial race. Already aware the IBBC has funded lucrative arms trading deals to terrorists to aid in the destabilization of several third-world government regimes, Salinger and Whitman suspect Calvini of having been a key player in the IBBC's supply and demand of weapons. Alas, as they look on, Calvini is murdered in plain view while giving his latest political public address in an open-air venue; Salinger rushing to a nearby hotel from where he suspects the invisible assassin, known only as ‘the consultant’ (Brían F. O'Byrne) has taken his kill shot. Salinger is too late to apprehend his man, thwarted by corrupt police who hasten both Salinger and Whitman out of the country. However, in scanning the airport security tapes back home, Salinger is drawn to several telling clues on the monitor, including a leg brace that allows him to form a more concrete picture of the consultant, now hiding somewhere in New York City.
Salinger and Whitman are given a big break in their stalemated investigation when NYPD detectives, Iggy Ornelas (Felix Solis) and Bernie Ward (Jack McGee) provide them with their first photographic evidence of the consultant’s face and also manage to locate Dr. Isaacson (Tibor Feldman) to whose practice the leg brace is traced. Tailing their suspect to the Guggenheim Museum, Salinger, Ornelas and Ward witness a clandestine meeting between the consultant and IBBC executive, Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Alas, their meeting is a ruse, designed to flush the consultant out of hiding so a pair of newly appointed assassins can liquidate him. In the exhilarating showdown that follows, Bernie is killed and the consultant and Salinger are briefly teamed for mere survival against the hit men’s arsenal. The consultant is mortally wounded and, after being dragged by Salinger to relative safety, dies before he can disclose any of the IBBC’s secrets or his own complicity in Calvini's murder.
Wexler is taken into protective custody by Eleanor to a secret meeting place where he agrees to help Salinger set up Jonus Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen); the IBBC’s chairman whom Wexler already knows is responsible for hiring the consultant to kill Calvini (as well as the men to kill the consultant) so the bank can deal directly with Calvini’s sons to buy missile guidance systems. Wexler, a former Stasi colonel, is highly skeptical of Salinger’s plan to stop the IBBC. It will do no good in the long run; Wexler explaining to Salinger that although they are currently the biggest investor in international espionage, the splintering of the IBBC's autonomy will only result in hundreds of other banks picking up their slack once they are gone. Salinger doesn’t much care at this point; his investigation having slightly soured into a personal vendetta as he heads off the IBBC’s point man, Martin White (Patrick Baladi), revealing to Calvini’s sons, Mario (Gerolamo Fancellu) and Enzo (Luca Calvani) they are about to do business with the organization responsible for their father’s murder. Instead, the Calvini brothers decide to take matters into their own hands, dismissing their deal with the IBBC before having White murdered along a lonely road. Meanwhile, Salinger, with Wexler’s complicity, tails Skarssen to Istanbul where he intends to gain a confession from him – one way or the other.
Skarssen is in town to buy crucial components from their only other manufacturer, meeting in the city’s famed aqua ducts while Salinger attempts in vain to record their conversation so he can prove to the buyers the missiles are useless. Ultimately, static intrudes. Wexler is quietly assassinated in one of the courtyards just beyond, causing Skarssen to panic. Salinger reveals himself to Skarssen, hunting him down in a harrowing chase through the market bazaar, culminating with a daring rooftop rendezvous. Alas, trapped with nowhere left to run, Skarssen’s confession to Salinger is thwarted by another assassin’s bullet. The Calvini brothers, it seems, have settled the score on their own terms, thus depriving Salinger of his final link to the IBBC. As Wexler predicted, the bank survives the death of its Chairman, although, in the movie’s epitaph, it is suggested the IBBC’s increased expansion will ultimately lead to its own downfall.
The International is high octane thrills with some stunning set pieces scattered throughout, utilizing contemporary and traditional architecture throughout Europe to achieve a sort of emasculating isolationism. The Autostadt, as example, is a monolithic glass and concrete oasis, symbolizing IBBC’s fake transparency in the world of legitimate banking. Even more impressive is Production Designer Sarah Horton’s flawless recreation of the Guggenheim for the exhilarating confrontation between Salinger and the consultant. But most refreshing of all is the way Eric Singer’s screenplay manages to avoid virtually all the standard clichés we have come to expect from the ‘mindless’ actioner. In our present cinema age of choppy edits and shaky handheld camerawork destabilizing and Ginsu-ing the scenery to shreds, Frank Greibe’s silken smooth cinematography is a welcomed retreat and seemingly effortless feast for the eyes. Here is stylish film-making of the first order and with a patina of uber-elegance for the cold, cruel and spooky cynicism operating in the plain, unflattering light of day, that I sincerely hope will become the more fashionable norm for staging movie thrillers in years yet to come. We could do with a few more of this caliber and ilk. In the final analysis, The International is skilled entertainment with an intriguing tale of political espionage at its core: a must see thrill ride executed by director, Tom Tykwer with sardonic wit, visualized astuteness and a genuine flair for very stylish film-making.
Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray is breathtaking. The image is reference quality, exquisitely realizing Frank Griebe’s carefully crafted ‘in-focus’ cinematography. Colors are rich, deep and vibrant. Contrast levels have been superbly rendered. Blacks are deep. Whites are very clean. Fine detail pops as it should even during the darkly rendered sequences. There is nothing else to add here except The International’s visuals are pristine. The 5.1 DTS delivers a sonic kick effectively spread across all channels. Prepare to be knocked out of your seat by the ricochet of bullets and squeal of speeding tires on the tarmac. The heart-palpitating score written by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer exhibits a powerful bass. Extras are the only real disappointment here: several brief featurettes discussing various aspects of filming without getting up close and personal with any of it; just a lot of predigested sound bites and snippets hacked together into the usual junket-quality that passes for a ‘making of’. We also get extended scenes and outtakes and a picture-in-picture audio commentary worth a listen. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)