"The International" opens with a close-up of Clive Owen's bedraggled and unshaven face staring intently on a dodgy transaction that's taking place in a car park in the pouring rain across the street from him. As it cuts to his British colleague in a German car (played by an excellent Ian Burfield) negotiating the release of dangerous information from a nervous businessman in the driver's seat, you are immediately aware of a number of things - the stunning picture quality, the clever story and the cool cast. "The International" is beautiful to look at on BLU RAY and it's what you'd expect from a film like this - a well-paced espionage Bourne-like thriller that's both entertaining and striving to say something (though not always achieving either).
Roughly based on true events that rocked the banking system in the 80s and 90s, "The International" has been given a contemporary upgrade by Director TOM TYKWER and Writer ERIC SINGER - and in light of the avalanche of less-than-honest activities surrounding the recent global meltdown, it doesn't look the least bit out of place. In fact "The International" looks like it's arrived just in time - and with a really good point to make. Is it really the terrorists we need to be scared of - or the shady filth in suits that finance them? And what are their ultimate motives?
Clive Owen and Naomi Watts play Louis Salinger and Eleanor Whitman, two investigators from either side of the pond with a similar burning goal - for years they've been trying to expose a European bank they believe to be the number one choice for 90% of the world's dirty money. Toppling governments, controlling populations - it's a cesspool of hurt for ordinary people everywhere - and has clients said to include 'everyone' from Hezbollah to the CIA. But when Salinger and Whitman try to get close to an 'insider' who could give them a case, that person and their entire family gets removed by a no-loose-ends professional - and the agents subsequent investigations into the dead bodies then gets bogged down in endless amounts of convenient red tape and police bureaucracy.
After a while it becomes obvious that it's time to take chances, live dangerously and go outside the law. And on the movie goes to Istanbul and a newspaper collage in the end credits that depressingly reads more like the truth rather than fiction...
As you can imagine the cast is huge and the locations many. Keeping with buildings - the pristine yet detached architecture peppering so many affluent cities around the world especially in their financial sectors is used as a sort of subtext - as Agent Salinger climbs the steps of yet another sleek but soulless headquarters, he's little David making his way towards a mighty Goliath and with no real certainty that he's going to wound the beast, let alone kill the seemingly indestructible monster.
Owen is a great leading man if not too ludicrously handsome to be believable, while Watts is an actress of calm beauty and intelligence that most leading men would want to work with. Ulrich Thomas is superb as the intelligent yet clinically detached head of the shady bankers conglomerate that talk on laptops and meet in museums. Felix Silis and Jack McGee (the Chief in Rescue Me) turn up as low-level detectives in New York just doing their job with tenaciousness and heart, while Watts plays it straight throughout - a woman who is committed, but scared out of her wits for herself and her young family (the writing is thankfully too intelligent to set up the inevitable romance between her and the lead).
But the movie's secret weapon is Armin Mueller-Stahl. Stahl is the kind of actor who has monumental gravitas - he makes every sentence seem like an event - he's like Europe's acting equivalent of Anthony Hopkins. Armin plays Wilhelm Wexler - a man who exudes old-world power and corruption stretching back a lifetime. But Salinger detects something else in Wexler's advanced years - here is a once-principled man who started out with ideals and dreams, but has ended up defending a nightmare that kills real people in the real world and with sickening passionless detachment. There's a brilliantly written face-to-face showdown between Owen and Mueller-Stahl - a meeting of two minds - both of whom are tired of being beaten to a pulp by a huge lie. Wilhelm wants redemption - a way of making his life count - and perhaps both men are smart enough to work out a way of mutual interest.
The BLU RAY has a commentary by the Director that's fantastically detailed; there's a very interesting "Making Of" feature which has location footage in Berlin, New York, Istanbul, Milan and even a deserted warehouse in Germany where the spectacular Guggenheim Museum set was built for a huge shoot out between Salinger and the assassin he's trying to keep alive - the excellent Irish actor Brian F. O'Byrne.
If I was to put up a failing - it would be that there's too much style over substance - and you just don't care enough for the characters to have the movie make a real impact on you. And some of the shoot-outs border on the silly rather than the believable - put in there to up the action quotient and provide enticing trailer fodder. Or perhaps its just that the subject matter is frankly too real for most of us...and it's outcome too depressing...
For all that "The International" is an impressive and entertaining thriller - not great - but definitely worth a punt.
And could someone please give Clive Owen ugly tablets - it only seems fair to the rest of us mere mortals...