Neither Sleep Nor Scandal Nor Bullets Stop This Salinger

Naomi Watts as Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman and Clive Owen as Interpol agent Louis Salinger in Tom Tykwer's "The International",
which opened last Friday in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Sony Pictures)

The International
By Omar P.L. Moore/        
February 18, 2009

With its flaws -- and there are a few -- "The International" is still the first great action drama of 2009, and it's almost single-handedly due to Clive Owen, as well as to some good editing (Mathilde Bonnefoy) and production design (Uli Hanisch) -- especially for the film's first hour.  Mr. Owen is Columbo-like, weathered and beaten down to an artful science as Interpol agent Louis Salinger, in the middle of investigating the murder of a colleague and stumbling upon a vast banking conspiracy that takes him to Milan, Nice, Turkey, New York City and Madrid.  It is the closest that Mr. Owen gets to playing James Bond, a role he was once in the running for.  Salinger is backed by New York City assistant district attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), who is investigating and looking for criminal prosecution.

As directed by "Run Lola Run" filmmaker Tom Tykwer, "The International" is chameleon-like, beginning as a suspense thriller, then developing into a character study and mystery before becoming a blood and guts action film, if only for a fleeting instant.  Overall, the film is most memorable for its slick, high-style production values, a glossy, opulent presentation if nothing else.  "The International" is riveting as audiences are plunged into one line of plot before being whisked away and betrayed by a couple of turnabout events.  The director's ambition and pace aren't the albatross, nor are Mr. Owen's endeavors -- it's everyone else who appears static by comparison.  Ms. Watts tries but doesn't register to kind of urgency that the film's plot demands.  Armin Mueller-Stahl's presence is welcomed but he's played the role he plays here before, and better.  There's a scene late on between Mr. Owen and Mr. Mueller-Stahl that resembles the coda scene between Christopher Plummer and Jodie Foster in "Inside Man", another film involving banks and heists that Mr. Owen was so good in.  Spike Lee's film -- with less action -- was head and shoulders above this one in many ways.  This is not to say that the cast of "The International" isn't good -- the ensemble is very good and includes character actor James Rebhorn ("The Game"), even as it lacks a certain level of ingenuity.

"The International", which opened in the U.S. and Canada last Friday, is occasionally intriguing.  The film keeps one engrossed and guessing.  The locations are beautifully shot and framed by terrific art direction and set decoration.  Just as you think you have understood the story you are mistaken.  Each of the banker characters sits arrogantly on the couches of their high-priced offices, enjoying the splendor of their positions as much as the suits and shirts they are attired in.  There are also one or two philosophical statements, including one that goes to the effect of, "a man of action is required to act as a man of thought".  This makes sense as the film keeps you thinking and guessing, and for a while we see that Mr. Owen's Salinger is burning to act.  His eyes have been registering action from the film's opening frame but he sublimates his primal will, going the cerebral route before action fans begin rejoicing during a clever seven-minute shootout that is full of tension.  Even though the blood, bullets and octane comes during a third act that stutters and sputters, it is one of the highlights of a film which while solid, could have been much better.  Loose ends and back stories are dispatched via Eric Singer's otherwise interesting screenplay without being further unwound.  And if only Mr. Tykwer had been able to elicit more enthusiasm from more of his performers than Mr. Owen. 

Still, thus far in this very early part of 2009, for sheer effort, the British actor is a troubadour, restraining himself when necessary but going full-throttle when needed.  When Mr. Owen is not onscreen the film wilts in the sunlight of its own high-quality celluloid, but when he's on it galvanizes its audience.

With: Ulrich Thomsen, Brķan F. O'Byrne, Luca Barbareschi, Alessandro Fabrizi, Felix Solis, Jack McGee and Nilaja Sun.

"The International" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some sequences of violence and language.  The film's duration is one hour and 58 minutes.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2009.  All Rights Reserved.


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