Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The International And A Man Of Mystery

There are some movies that I'm sure are made specifically with me in mind. Last year Speed Racer, Redbelt, and John Woo's magnificent Red Cliff made me incredibly happy, much as I had expected. They would have had to be total failures for me not to appreciate them on some level. This year the same applies to Ninja Assassin, Inglourious Basterds, and Transformerbots 2: Revenge of the Subset of Transformerbots Known As The Fallen Transformerbots. In different ways they all feature something that appeals to some part of my brain, be it fighting robots, Rain kicking people in the skullparts, or Nazi scalp-hunting.

Another genre I eat up with a big-ass spoon is the dour corporate thriller, which seems to be undergoing a revival thanks to the success of Michael Clayton. Tony Gilroy appears to be thriving with these movies. His next, Duplicity, looks like a frothier entry than most, a Thomas Crown Affair-style romp with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts flirting through Europe while conning evil corporate scum played by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson. Other than the presence of the bafflingly successful Roberts, that's another movie you would have to restrain me to stop me from seeing. As I said in my Push review, I adore con movies, though it's hard to be caught out by one as you go in expecting a big shock twist in the final scene. That's deadly, as I spend the whole movie trying to figure out what that final con will be. One day I'll learn how to switch that impulse off.

Another genre piece I felt compelled to see (even though it nearly killed me to see four movies in one week) was Tom Tykwer's The International, a much-sterner, Pakula-esque kind of corporate thriller than Gilroy's forthcoming movie. Just to really sell me on it, the cast was headed by Clive Owen (this time in vengeful, non-flirty mode), Naomi Watts at her most pale, and Armin Mueller Stahl, again staking a claim to the roles that would previously have been automatically handed to Max Von Sydow. The two leads are guaranteed to raise my interests, Owen since his superb performance in Children of Men, and Watts ever since playing Jet Girl in the otherwise unforgivable Tank Girl. Yes yes, I know...


I hadn't even noticed the movie at first, so hectic are things at the moment, until I read the usual slew of reviews on its day of release. The plot grabbed my attention instantly, even if it is doing little more than taking the standard corporate conspiracy thriller template and adding topical(ish) elements to the open slots. Owen is a former Scotland Yard police officer now working for Interpol, investigating the shady actions of a bank (the International of the title) with the help of the CIA (and pale Naomi). While everyone around Owen thinks this is a standard investigation that will proceed along traditional lines, our hero is convinced that the bank is responsible for numerous obstructive acts, from bribery to murder. No one believes him, and throughout the movie his options shrink to none, until he is forced to go off the grid to find justice.

It's shocking how little The International deviates from convention. Europe is traversed many times over, bugs are found in phones, pencil-pushing superiors shut down investigations with the phrase "You've no idea what a shitstorm you've created!", hyper-capitalist bad guys are as nonchalant as you can be without starting every sentence with "Meh", and assassins know where video cameras are located in airports and tilt their heads accordingly.

That adherence to convention is almost laughable at times. In one scene our heroes have gone to Milan to meet Umberto Calvini (played by Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, with the finest head of hair cinema has seen in years), a politician who is willing to give them the lowdown on what The International is trying to achieve with their plan to facilitate the sale of a few measly missiles. It's a fantastic stream of exposition, linking international banking to arms deals and profiting from war and the crippling debt it generates, turning the people of the world into indentured slaves.

Thrilling stuff, and based not only on the BCCI scandal of recent times (rather cheekily, The International is officially called the International Bank of Business and Credit), but also the kind of revelations you could find in John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hitman, as well as being a not-too subtle dig at the International Monetary Fund's method of generating indebtedness in the countries it "helps". It's the kind of revelation you don't expect to see in a mainstream movie, unless it really is a sign that people are waking up to the unsavoury practices of our financial institutions, and seeing that Capitalism is a system that can easily be abused to wreck billions of lives when ethics are compromised and regulation is removed.

Sadly, that scene ends with Calvini hilariously announcing that he doesn't have time to give Owen and Watts any more info at that moment, even though it surely couldn't take long. The dialogue goes exactly like this:

You'll have to excuse me, I'm afraid. I couldn't possibly give you that easily explainable piece of information you desperately need, because of Reason X. I have to go outside to give a speech to my supporters on a stage in the middle of a plaza surrounded by buildings that provide a perfect vantage point for numerous snipers, and as you can imagine, this being Italy, the movie birthplace of corruption, the head of the Carabinieri has almost certainly been bribed into helping cover it up. Kindly wait for a few minutes, and when my brains exit stage left, please rush through a panicky crowd in a futile attempt to get to me. You could also solve the crime that the few honest policemen cannot figure out while you are here. Use those techniques from CSI and a modicum of common sense to do so. That will prove entertaining to the audience, and will please me while I watch from the afterlife.

Okay, he doesn't say all of that, but he might as well have done.

The International sure does love the idea of political assassinations. The film begins with Owen's partner getting killed in much the same way Georgi Markov was killed in 1978, and ends with a Mafia hit that brings up memories of the murder of Roberto Calvi. Inbetween those scenes, so many people get shot by unseen assailants that by the midpoint of the movie you expect every character filmed in medium frame to suddenly erupt in squibby death. A lot of the time that is indeed what happens.

So why, if the movie is so predictable, did I think it was the best film I saw last week, far superior to Franklyn, Push, and Zack Snyder's lamentable waste of time and money, Watchmen? Mostly because I lap this stuff up with a spoon. The lone avenger, abandoned by everyone, facing down the might of the corporate-military-industrial complex in a heroic last stand, assailed by the seemingly unvanquishable monolith of The System, and dwarfed by their sterile, inhuman steel architecture; that's the stuff. The Parallax View, Michael Clayton, All The President's Men; even the fantasy sub-genres like The Matrix or the first X-Files movie; I can't get enough.

Just to make me even happier, Clive Owen does a fantastic job as the rumpled loner, out of his depth but driven to break the law to find the truth. He even gets to wear his trademark long coat, that has served him so well in Children of Men and Shoot 'Em Up, making him look like a rumpled, handsome Jacques Tati driven to the edge by the vicissitudes of modern life. With every new performance I like him more and more.

Watts has much less to do, but I'd happily watch her play a switchboard operator for two hours. The supporting cast are great too. Patrick Baladi (forever to be known as David Brent's super-competent boss in The Office) is amusingly slick and obstructive as the IBBC lawyer who gets in Owen's way. Ulrich Thomsen is suitably impassive and creepy as the IBBC head who calmly leads his bank down a immoral path. Bryan F. O'Byrne radiates unnerving professionalism as the assassin that Owen chases for much of the movie.

Best of all, Mueller-Stahl does superb, haunting work as the former Stasi officer who has sold his soul to Capitalism, still performing terrible acts but now so dead to the ramifications of his actions that he no longer cares who he works for or what political beliefs they hold. An interrogation scene between him and Owen that comes late in the film is chilling, even though, yet again, Eric Warren Singer's script serves up a beige platter of "truth this" and "justice that". The committed performances transcend the humdrum dialogue.

The only real variable when deciding whether or not to watch this was Tom Tykwer. I've only seen Lola Rennt, which was a lot of fun and doubled as a great introduction to the sorely underemployed Franka Potenta. Other than that, I've missed out on Heaven, his adaptation of Kieslowski's last script, and even though I have recorded Perfume seemingly dozens of times via Sky+, it always gets deleted before I get to see it as we need room for Daily Show, Colbert Report, or Grand Designs. Some day, you weird-looking film based on a beloved German novel. Some day.

I've always had the impression that Tykwer was like the German Danny Boyle, randomly throwing wacky visuals at the screen with little care for whether the scene needed them or not, or what the overall tone of the movie should be. It's not really fair of me to assume that on such little evidence, but this reputation has existed whether or not I've seen them. Considering the material he is working with here, would he wreck the movie with endless, pointless flashiness?

The answer is hell no. Tykwer turns in a classy, restrained, but exciting thriller, swallowing any showy impulses to deliver a taut conspiracy piece. Even better, he delivers a couple of superb set-pieces. The first, the murder of Owen's partner, builds brilliantly from innocuous calm to panic and death, and all it features is a heart attack and Clive Owen crossing a road. Tykwer takes what should be a simple scene and imbues it with horrible menace. Not bad for one minute of film. De Palma would have been proud.

The second is the lauded shootout in the Guggenheim Museum, with Owen attempting to apprehend the assassin who has been busy killing the majority of the supporting cast to that point. What starts as a simple tail ends up being a bloody and brutal massacre, leaving the gallery shattered and bullet-ridden. In a way it's probably a terrible scene, being far more violent and extreme compared to the mild thrills to that point, but a setpiece as thrillingly staged as this deserves praise, especially when it is shot and edited with such clarity and attention to detail. Even more impressive, the scene is filmed on a set built to the exact specifications of the original building. It boggles my mind. Some of the effects are rough and ready, but no matter. It raised the blood pressure brilliantly, and certainly throws Owen's life into such turmoil that he can no longer afford to play by the rules, thus setting up the finale.

For all of the predictability of the conspiracy plot, as well as some glaring illogicalities (the final confrontation ends with an unbelievable leap of logic, and I don't mean Owen's sudden ability to travel internationally despite the warrant for his arrest), it was a satisfying experience. Would it get on my end of year list? Not a chance, unless we're in for a terrible year. However, I'm thrilled that Tykwer, a director I had ignored in the past, has been able to serve the story so well, intelligently staging the action and the suspense, creating a coherent visual template (all cold steel, granite and glass, until the finale in an alien locale where all bets are off), and not distracting the audience with extraneous narrative and/or visual trickery.

That ability to adapt his style to the material has given me new respect for his talents, even if The International is merely on the right side of average. There is a possibility that his next project will be an adaptation of David Mitchell's stunning novel Cloud Atlas, produced and co-developed by the Wachowskis. Of all the dream projects seemingly made with me in mind, that has now become the ultimate.

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