Dir: Tom Tykwer. US-Ger. 2008. 118mins.
With its steely gray Euro locations and befuddled Berlin-based protagonist, The International initially feels like a pre-Bourne exercise; a Le Carre-style thriller for the post-Wall generation. But apart from a topical subject matter - dastardly double-dealing bankers - and frenetic location switching around Europe, The International falls far short of making its case. Tom Tykwer’s second time to open the Berlinale after the disappointing Heaven won’t set Potsdamer Platz alight, although its Berlin sequences should play well to the home crowd and it’s easy to see why festival Dieter Kosslick found it an irresistible option.
With only one real set piece 85 minutes in, you can’t really call The International an action film. As a thriller, it never works up any measure of suspense either, fighting its own verbosity and twitchy scene-changing to make any impact. Lead Clive Owen makes a leaden Interpol agent and there’s no charisma between him and an oddly cast, struggling Naomi Watts as a Manhattan DA. Ploddingly talky and topically plotted, if this works anywhere it will be in European business centres, but its future elsewhere, particularly in the US, is less than certain. Ancillary could be limited to Euro markets, where it may do quite nicely.
What is puzzling about The International is the way it frequently switches between being US studio-smooth and Euro-pudding awkward. It takes the trouble to set up a Silvio Berlusconi-like character with a party called Futuro Italia (in the same way as its evil arms-dealing bank is a BCCI-alike called The International Bank of Business and Credit) and swishes between Luxembourg, Berlin, New York, Istanbul, Lake Garda and Milan, but the sound quality is often 80s-murky. And the dialogue itself seems to come from Karate Kid: ‘Sometimes,’ Owen’s Interpol detective tells Stasi-chief-turned-banker Armin Mueller-Stahl, ‘a man meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.’ So enamoured is Tykwer/writer Eric Warren Singer of this line, they have Mueller-Stahl repeat it back to him later.
The proceedings kick off in Berlin’s newly-built Hauptbanhof train station where Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) has been working in an elaborate international operation with Manhattan DA Eleanor Whitman (Watts) on one of Luxembourg-based IBBC’s senior officers to turn state witness. It all goes quickly awry, however, and Salinger and Whitman must now work to unravel IBBC’s murderous and all-powerful network together, an obsession which has predictably destroyed Salinger’s life and almost ruined his career.
The International is certainly ambitious, with Tykwer introducing multiple characters, plot strands and locations on the way to a zinging shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum (impressively recreated on a soundstage in Germany). This sequence isn’t exactly logically played out but it does give The International the shot in the arm it so badly needs at this point before descending again into hammy dialogue and lovely-looking locales. It’s always a pleasure to see Armin Mueller-Stahl, but at this point he practically has ‘monster’ tattooed on his forehead when it comes to English-language productions, and the denouement (again, sumptuously-shot in Istanbul) never seems less than inevitable.
Owen’s out-of-shape Interpol agent frankly doesn’t seem bright enough to keep up with the international network of evil that is IBBC; his facial expression runs from puzzled to baffled to exhausted as he puffs down a Manhattan street. But it’s not easy to say ‘sometimes bridges are better off being burnt’ with a straight face. Twkyer may well find he’s set a few alight here.
Eric Warren Singer
Brian F O’Byrne