Clive Owen has certainly proven that he is a very versatile actor, capable of contributing to several different genres, and never failing to bring his own unique, fresh, charm and charisma to the mix, with such movies as the comic book action/dark comedy Shoot 'Em Up, the noir-esque Sin City, the relationship drama Closer, the period dramas Elizabeth: The Golden Age and King Arthur and the romantic dramas Duplicity and Beyond Borders. He has clearly honed his talent over the years and proven that perhaps his not being made the next Bond was actually for the best (although I would have still liked to have seen what he could have done with the character, maybe injecting a fraction more humanity into it than bulldog Daniel Craig is capable of). The prime example of his abilities as an actor - and that not being Bond was worth the sacrifice/loss - was with his performance in the seminal Children of Men, where his 'hero' never once even picked up a gun. However, when I heard that he was starring as a globe-trotting, gun-toting, lone warrior Interpol Agent in The International, I was initially a little worried that he might have been attempting to cash in on the fact that many viewers wanted to see him do his take on Bond. Thankfully, I was happily proven wrong, because whilst The International is far from a perfect film, it is also not just a lacklustre Bond imitator, instead standing apart as a solid, intriguing thriller.
Louis Sallinger is a former police officer-turned Interpol Agent following a lead about a potentially corrupt bank, who have allegedly been making much of their profits through mob affiliations, money laundering and even arms dealing. The closer to the truth he gets, however, the more the evidence is mysteriously erased, and the witnesses along with it, picked off one-by-one by a consummately professional hired assassin. Finding out more than he bargained for - the multinational bank he's investigating may just be funding a civil war with a view to dictating who will rule the country and profiting in that regime - his enquiries put his own life on the line and, with bodies dropping like flies around him, will he be able to expose the truth, or will they manage to silence him forever?
The International reminded me a little bit of those old school Sydney Pollack-esque thrillers, pre-MTV Generation, which relied on taut direction and sustained tension, rather than visceral bursts of energy, to entertain. Although not as classic in its style as the likes of Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection (I or II) or even the more recent Michael Clayton (Clooney deserved Best Actor for this, it is just a shame that he happened to be up against powerhouse Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood), it makes up for this by having some pretty engaging action scenes - not least one of the best shoot-outs that I have seen over the last few years (and certainly better than anything even in the last couple of, admittedly excellent, Bond movies) as well as an engaging and believable globe-trotting plot of international intrigue. The film showcases its worldwide locations with loving attention to noteworthy architecture - aside from the obvious standout set-piece of the Guggenheim in New York, we get some bleak but clinical German locations, a few lush bits of Italian scenery (complete with Bond super-villain-like headquarters) and some breathtaking Turkish settings - and the cinematography has a keen sense of symmetry to it, the visuals often having a satisfying perfection to them (the 'chase' across the Turkish rooftop gets it just right as the villain flees hurriedly towards one end of the screen just as the hero purposefully marches into sight at the other end). The film may not have that breakneck pacing that the new MTV generation is used to, with no fast-edited epileptically-cut scenes to give you that instant fix, but I think it works better for it, allowing the story, sumptuous setting and characters to evolve at a more digestible pace, basically eschewing frantic style in favour of pot-boiling menace and classic tension.
That's not to say that the film isn't without its faults, even if it does have a nice, old-school thriller feel to it. Intended to be released almost a year ago, the production was plagued by reshoots after test audiences proved none too impressed by the first draft. Apparently more action was added, although I cannot actually see how this was possible - at least in any significant respect - without reconfiguring the entire second half of the movie. Still, stripping action from the movie would probably have a detrimental effect on its ability to sustain your interest over what is a marginally over-long duration (the third act definitely loses steam and the climax is, well, somewhat anticlimactic). In addition, delaying the release by just a few months still had the knock on effect of pushing it into being released during a massive banking crisis across the US and UK. So, at a time when the word 'bank' is most associated with debt, financial ruin and crisis, a movie about an omnipotent international bank trying to control a country takes that little bit more suspension of disbelief to swallow. Timing is everything.
As for the cast, Clive Owen may make for a good action/drama lead but he seldom has to push the boundaries of his talents with his role here (and I think that his name - Louis Sallinger - is ludicrous, as are the ridiculous airbrushed images of him across the Blu-ray's cover and disc). Sure, he probably holds this whole thing together with pure charm but there wasn't enough character development or insight into a man who becomes this deeply obsessed - especially when you consider that he is aware that his action are, for all intents and purposes, borderline suicidal (given the organisation and depth of corruption that he is going up against) for us to really understand his character.
And Naomi Watts? I have absolutely no idea why she is on the front cover - nor why she deserves top billing - other than purely in an attempt to sell the movie. Don't get me wrong, I generally admire her work, and loved her in the Ring remakes (even if the originals - as is normally the case -are better), but she simply does nothing here. She plays some New York District Attorney who is sort-of advising Sallinger on what evidence is required to take the bank down, but all she basically does is follow him around for a bit, get hit by a car, and eventually get told to go home before she gets hurt any worse. It is a role almost any actress could play, insignificant and clichéd (apart from the fact that at least they don't allow the leads to allude to being in anything other than a platonic relationship), and she unfortunately brings nothing noteworthy to it. There are a couple of other familiar faces on board - in smaller roles - including the reliable cameo actor Armin Mueller-Stahl (The Peacemaker/The Game), but the only other performance really worth noting is that of relative unknown (or at least previously unnoticed) Brian O'Byrne, who plays the outwardly innocuous professional killer employed by the bank.
Directed competently by Tom “Run, Lola, Run” Tykwer, The International is a solid old-school thriller. It never really transcends the boundaries of the genre, and has no potential to be a classic in any way, but it is still much more gritty and engaging than Pollack's recent and marginally mediocre The Interpreter (which has a similar feel to it), and more exciting than the contrived 24-style Vantage Point, mainly thanks to a dark, perpetually oppressive story (nobody is safe in this film), several interesting twists, a couple of nice, tense scenes (and the aforementioned excellent shootout) and a reliably grim performance by Clive Owen. It's definitely worth checking this movie out - even if you don't immediately rush out and buy it - as it is a thrilling and compelling old school ride.
Our Review Ethos