Sunday, March 1, 2009

Catching up with "The International"

"The International," a spy thriller starring Clive Owen, hasn't caught on with audiences. That's surprising, since it has as its chief villain an entity that everyone seems to be pretty P.O.'d at right now: a bank.

Owen plays a burned-out Interpol agent hot on the trail of an international bank that's been dabbling in arms sales. Seems they're trying to cash in on the debt incurred by various military conflicts around the world by fomenting them in the appropriate places. Naomi Watts plays a New York D.A. working with Owen.

It's a terribly underwritten female lead part; ostensibly Owen and Watts are co-equal partners, but as is usual in Hollywood, the guy gets the meatier role. At one point near the end he gives her speech that essentially translates as, "All the really hard and dangerous stuff is about to start, and that's my job, so run along home and take care of your kids." I don't normally go in for a lot of feminist film theory, but you don't have to be Gloria Steinham to get riled by the shabby treatment of female characters.

"The International" is a well-executed potboiler, although it's hard to shake the feeling that we've seen it a hundred times before. Plus, all the people that the good guys track down have a nasty habit of dying soon after. Apparently everyone involved in the bank is constantly being watched by other bank toadies, ready to pull the trigger on them rather than let them give away their secrets.

This gets a bit old, and quickly. At one point Owen and Watts talk to a politician who provides them with a lot of juicy information. They ask for more time, and he says he'll tell them everything they want to know right after he gives this speech. I actually turned to Jean in the theater at this point and said, "Yes, I'd be happy to help you, but I'm scheduled to die in the next scene."

Sure enough, he's soon wearing his brains externally.

For a movie about financial malfeasance, there sure is a lot of violence, and well-staged by director Tom Tykwer. There's one long shootout inside the Guggenheim Museum that's as good a piece of cinematic action I've seen in a while. Owen has just captured the assassin he's been chasing, and immediately a gang of gunmen open fire on them. The two adversaries immediately become partners, dueling the enemy in the Guggenheim's iconic corkscrew rotunda. I was fairly blown away by this sequence; I can't imagine the museum folks would let them tear apart the place, so the set design is pretty impressive.

"The International" isn't exactly fresh, but it's well-done middling entertainment on a Saturday night. It's worth the coin.

2.5 stars out of four

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