“Sometimes a man can meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it”
Tom Tykwer’s 2009 action thriller The International was inspired by the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) scandal of the 1980s. At the time, the bank took money from over a million depositors around the globe, becoming a personal savings account for its Arab and Pakistani owners and a few high-profile customers. With the pressure of making political talk come alive on the screen, the American-German co-production dives into the pretzeled story, set in New York, Germany, Italy, France and Turkey. And yet, it flounders in its own shallowness. So where did it go so wrong?
Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), an Interpol agent, and Eleanor Watts (Naomi Watts), an American district attorney, are in the midst of an ongoing investigation when mysterious murders start taking place around them. As their moral compass compels them to push forward in their search for the truth, an obstacle appears at every turn – often in the form of tentative political alliances. The trail of bodies leads them to the IBBC, a bank concealing organised crime beneath its pristine exterior. But will they be able to fight the influence of global finance on international politics?
The film is abundant in artistic maneuvers that enthral visually from the very start. We are presented with gripping shots, clever manipulation of sound effects, shifting focus and angled takes that tug us on a wild rollercoaster ride. The excitement of watching the film is heightened by its alluring pace, switching from moments of unbearable tension to meaningful pauses that twist our insides in anticipation. The aura of The International is cleverly reflected in an antagonist’s words: “I like agony, because I know it’s true.” That same torment, which bleeds from the detached faces committing the atrocities, is mirrored in the film’s hollow, metallic spaces, bringing to mind a sense of alienation characteristic of sci-fi otherwordliness.
That bone-deep sense of being lost in the bureaucratic system has quite a Kafkaesque feel to it. The characters’ frustration with juridical providence can be perceived as teeth-grindingly relatable even today. And in capturing the sharp edges of the system we are expected to navigate, the film manages to bring to mind the Orwellian essence of the Big Brother.
One of the most notable moments of the film is the famous shootout scene, filmed in a life-size replica of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. By sticking to a realistic portrayal of gushing wounds and squelching flesh, the film pumps an almost choking amount of adrenaline and discomfort into the viewer. The action sequences leave no room for wishful thinking – the horrors we witness have equally resounding consequences, much like the blood-curdling murders in Patrcik Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017).
However, that’s where The International‘s appeal ends. As we are often reminded, “the real value of a conflict, the true value, is the debt it creates”. The story seems happy enough to sprint through its seemingly limiting screen time, forgetting to pull the viewers along. After a promising start, an onslaught of names and locations is let loose on the audience, making the film resemble a screaming child high on processed sugar. The migraine is made worse by a very jarring leap from the emotional hook in the first scene to the intricate political web wrapping itsef around the characters, erasing our memory of the film’s initial conflict – and goal.
To keep us even more confused, it seems, the speed of the dialogue strives to match David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). But while Aaron Sorkin’s writing sounds like a seamless tango, The International plods along in its aim to drown the audience in blurring facts – ones it cares increasingly little about. And it all comes down to the film being too political for its own good, with the grating emphasis placed on quantity over quality inevitably stagnating its own flow. Even Naomi Watts seems confused by the unfolding events, letting her mask of consternation crack on numerous occasions. And so, by the end of the film, you’re left with nothing but a blank mind – one that exasperates as much as an unfinished crossword puzzle.
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