Sunday, February 15, 2009

What The People Want

Because of a week that kind of got away from me, I haven’t been able to post as much as I would have liked lately. Hopefully that’ll change. But to bring up a film that seems to be getting lost in the shuffle, THE INTERNATIONAL hasn’t gotten much of a response from critics or at the box office and it’s a damn shame. It’s a terrific movie, one that is consistently tense and exciting, always making me wonder where the story was going. Yes, it’s got a lousy title and the trailer was boring but it feels very much like an attempt to make an old-fashioned 70s conspiracy thriller for the present day and, in a very satisfying way, never allows its characters to suddenly become stupid. It’s a very rare thing in this day and age, a popcorn movie for adults. Maybe I’m the crazy one here or maybe people just don’t feel like seeing this sort of things these days. There wasn’t a very big crowd at the Vista on Saturday afternoon but it felt like the people who were there were with it all the way.

Almost beginning with the plot already in progress, THE INTERNATIONAL tells the story of Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman working together to investigate shady arms dealings that seem to point to one of the world’s most powerful banks, the IBBC. When several suspicious deaths occur, the two follow a lead that may take them to an assassin who they could connect to the bank but, of course, they have no idea just how deep the conspiracy really goes.

The film was directed by Tom Tykwer of RUN LOLA RUN fame but surprisingly never resorts to flashy, empty visuals. Instead, THE INTERNATIONAL is shot in Scope in a cool, open style that is almost always visually compelling. Set in a variety of international locales, its approach seems like the opposite of the norm these days—there’s no shaky cam and it’s never difficult to follow the action when that is necessary. And as complex as it is, which these films always are, it never falls into the trap of becoming confusing. The script by Eric Warren Singer hits the ground running, almost as if somebody ripped out the first 30 pages to start with the story already in motion and the characters up to speed but it gives the audience enough credit to be able to catch up to them. When somebody bumps into Clive Owen about twenty minutes into the film, we’re already on edge based on what we’ve learned even in that small amount of time. Owen’s Louis Salinger is believably gritty and determined but he’s no superman—when the plot compels him to chase after a speeding car on foot it becomes very clear almost instantly just what a losing proposition that really is. He’s good at his job, but he seems very aware that he isn’t Jack Bauer. For the past few weeks I’ve been jokingly referring to TAKEN (which I enjoyed) as LIAM NEESON KICKS ASS—using that same formula you could call this film CLIVE OWEN GETS PISSED. It absolutely delivers on that promise. Avoiding flashy visuals and CGI nonsense, the film is very clearly going for a 70s type of aesthetic—when a sequence in New York turns into a trail-the-suspect-on-foot setpiece I found myself sitting in my seat beaming at the whole FRENCH CONNECTION-ness of it all. And when the film’s visual centerpiece happens, a full action sequence set in the Guggenheim, it’s phenomenally well done and a reward for all that tension that has been building up. Even the critics out there who hate the movie (and they’re wrong) seem to love this scene and, actually shot on a stage in Germany, it really is a thing of beauty.

I’m not going to come out and say that the film deserves to rank along the finest conspiracy thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR or BLOW OUT but on its own it feels genuinely satisfying. Maybe there’s very little left to be shocked about anymore when it comes to what well-dressed men are doing high atop these glass towers, that doesn’t necessarily negate its effectiveness and besides, it’s hard not to be a little suspicious of what’s going on in banks during these times. The film mainly focuses on the conspiracy plot over its characters—it’s easy to imagine the Sydney Pollack version of this film choosing to focus on the two leads and their relationship but it never goes there. Watts’s character has a husband and child so romance never enters the picture—they’re just two people who are working together and trust each other. The two stars work very well together, looking at times believably haggard and always feeling human. They manage to never become ciphers even when they are at the mercy of the plot. It’s Owen’s film more than hers anyway and by the time we’re confronted with his dilemma at the end I found myself thinking that another film with this character is a sequel that I’d actually want to see. I guess that isn’t going to happen now, but if Clive Owen wasn’t going to play Bond then this could have been his version of Harry Palmer and it would have been fascinating to see where they might have gone with it. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays a key figure at the center of the conspiracy, familiar character actor Jack McGee is a New York cop who aids Owen and Brian F. O’Byrne, also in William Friedkin’s BUG, is very effective as the assassin who is being sought by Owen and Watts.

Maybe I’m the crazy one because the word out there seems to be that this film is bad or boring or bland or maybe it’s just being criticized for using the plot point of a bank at the center of its giant conspiracy. But it’s never dull, it’s consistently gripping, it has one absolutely phenomenal action sequence along with plenty of other good scenes—it’s a real movie and a smart movie, the kind I wish we got more of. I barely write about new releases anymore either good or bad partly because often there doesn’t seem to be very much new to add to what’s being said. But here’s a film that seems to be getting a bum rap and I just wanted to put that out there. I’ll try to be back with more soon.


Unknown said...

Can't agree with you more. How beautifully photographed and designed was this movie? I almost would see it again just for the look. Sometimes I found myself guessing where it was going for the wrong reasons, and I wished the film had room for something more with Watts' character, but it's truly one of the most interesting thrillers in a while. I have some huge questions about the turn of events in the last act, but I still walked out saying "wow, now that was something different."

I'm not surprised most critics didn't connect with it, it's a studied, particular film that does not really follow a formula, but A.O. Scott's review in the NY Times was really nasty. What happened to turn him against this movie? It really feels like the wrong target.

Thanks for the recommendation, I might not have caught it on the big screen without it.

Unknown said...

Wow, this is the first positive review I've read for this film. I guess when that many critics hate it you've got to wonder if there's something else going on. I like Clive Owen and Tom Tywker so my curiosity it piqued. Nice write-up. I will have to check it out.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thrilled to hear that you liked it so much and while I hear where you're coming from with a few of your points--and I don't necessarily disagree--it's still a real surprise how good the film is, particularly after some of those reviews. Glad I got you to go check it out.


Thanks very much and I hope that you like it as well. It really mystifies me why so many critics have been as down on it as they are--mass hypnosis during a screening or something? It deserves better.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Right there with you Peel. Seriously I saw this today and was quite blown away. It felt like The Parallax View for the modern age to me and I can't think of a higher compliment than that.
I am really baffled by the critical reaction this has got...really baffled. This is a terrific film.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thrilled to hear you like it as well, Jeremy. Don't ask me about the reaction, it's a real mystery. Hopefully people will stumble across it on DVD or something. For now, we'll just have to tell people that this is one time they definitely shouldn't listen to the critics.