Film Review: The International

Berlin International Film Festival -- Competition
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Arriving when the global banking system is in meltdown, the premise of the Berlinale's opening night film, "The International" -- which sees a cabal of exquisitely tailored European bankers collude with arms dealers and the mafia while the world looks on -- doesn't seem like a stretch. Hop-scotching across continents and as consumed with big ideas as it is enthralled by great architecture, Tom Tykwer's glossy, high finance conspiracy thriller is a spectacular looking film with an unsettling intensity.

One of the more commercial releases to come out of Germany and featuring a multinational cast worthy of its title, "The International" should resonate in European territories. Its timely theme and globetrotting visuals could translate to sizable domestic boxoffice as well, although that may depend on whether audiences will invest in a story concerning the nefarious practices of corrupt bankers.

A lone man raging against the machine, Salinger (an intense Clive Owen) is a driven Interpol agent obsessed with bringing down the I.B.B.C., a Luxembourg banking enterprise whose resume includes war profiteering and murdering anyone who stands in its way. (Brian F. O'Byrne as a spooky assassin is like a coiled animal ready to strike.)

Volatile and more outraged than those around him, Owen initially appears to be in his own movie. After a tentative start and establishing a complicated set-up, the film gels and the pulse quickens, especially when the action shifts to Manhattan, where Salinger, an unstable Don Quixote figure in need of a shave and a change of clothes, closes in on his only lead.

Salinger teams with a Manhattan D.A. (an uncharacteristically dull Naomi Watts with no real character to play.) Their partnership, the expository dialogue and, in particular, a prolonged, far-fetched shootout at the Guggenheim Museum are weaknesses in an otherwise intricately plotted script by Eric Warren Singer.

Punctuated with bursts of explosive energy, this is a contained, cerebral film. Rapture is reserved for dramatic modern architecture, which is equated with power and control, a reflection of how master manipulators view themselves. (Uli Hanisch's production design and Ngila Dickson's costumes are superb as are tech credits throughout.)

Tykwer's cinematic virtuosity has often exceeded his narrative grasp. But if he has little instinct for relationship or conversation, he has a keen eye for visual metaphor. Ensconced in the steel and glass membrane of their headquarters, the bankers, bathed in frigid blue light, resemble deep sea predators in an aquarium; the home of I.B.B.C.'s head honcho (Ulrich Thomsen), shot in stark relief against a nighttime sky, is cantilevered over a cliff. The imposing grandeur of ancient Istanbul is equally thrilling thanks to Frank Griebe's consistently exhilarating cinematography.

Salinger meets his match in I.B.B.C. "adviser" Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a former Stasi functionary. In their metaphysical exchanges, staged as a verbal duel between idealists on opposite ends of the spectrum, Wexler observes that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. And though in fiction, the good guys win, this film paints a murkier scenario.

Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil wrote the tension-inducing score.