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Bland bank scandal leaves us feeling blah

POSTED: February 18, 2009 10:30 p.m.
/Columbia Pictures

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) uncovers a conspiracy larger than himself in the thriller "The International."

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Writer/director Tom Tykwer announced his presence with authority back in 1998, thanks to his worldwide hit "Run Lola Run." It was his third feature, and he instantly seemed like the future of cinema.

"Run Lola Run" managed to throw a relentless excess of action at us while also making us ponder some timeless issues. It was an outstanding marriage of adrenaline and brains.

His films since then, though, have been entertaining at times, interestingly quirky at others and occasionally just very bad.

So 11 years after planting his flag, Tykwer gets a shot at mainstream, global glory by making "The International," a big-budget political thriller that should appeal to audiences throughout the world.

"The International" is a throwback to the paranoid thrillers of the ’70s like "The Parallax View" and "Three Days of the Condor."

While investigating an international bank for money laundering and arms trading, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York City Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) discover that the bank’s activities are much more widespread, politically motivated and deadly than they thought.

Following the formula of political thrillers, Salinger and Whitman slowly peel back the onion of a vast conspiracy, relentlessly pursuing the truth and battling powerful businessman Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), his former-communist adviser Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and their world-class hit man (Brian F. O’Byrne).

This all sounds great. So why is it this movie never grabs our emotions and rarely raises our pulse?

First, it’s all too formulaic, right down to the name of the bank: the International Bank of Business and Credit. A generic name for a generic villain.

"The International" also fails to strike the balance of thrills and smarts found in "Lola" or the best political thrillers.

It offers melodramatic platitudes rather than genuine insight. Salinger says at one point, "The hardest thing in life is knowing which bridges to cross and which to burn." He also philosophizes, "Sometimes you meet your destiny on the very road you took to avoid it."

Gee, how Zen.

It’s weak on action, too, with the exception of one spectacular shoot-out sequence set in the Guggenheim Museum. Thousands of bullets fly, several henchmen die (in fact, they seem to just keep coming out of nowhere throughout the scene) and the Manhattan landmark is left looking like spiral swiss cheese.

That sequence outshines what is otherwise a plodding, bland movie.

Try as he does, Owen can’t even save the movie with that intense, piercing stare of his.

"The International" is based on a real bank scandal, and it comes at a time when we’re all eager to root against corrupt bankers. Ironically, the movie can’t even capitalize on those emotions.

It might be unfair to judge everything a filmmaker does by whether it equals his signature work. Tykwer made one classic film years ago. We keep expecting him to do it again, and he keeps disappointing us.

We should maintain a little perspective, though: "The International" may be only a little above average, but if you have the urge to go to the movies this weekend, it’s certainly better than Tyler Perry’s latest culture crime or "Fired Up."

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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