It never fails to impress me, the number of indie filmmakers who come around to crank out big-budget affairs within years of landing on the Hollywood scene. Striking while the iron's hot is one thing, but if you popped up after I pushed stop on a VHS copy of Swingers and told me that same director would also be responsible for not just one, but two high-gloss spy thrillers (The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith), I'd probably be more than a little skeptical (not to mention concerned as to who you were and what you were doing there). Similarly, if you stopped me immediately after viewing Following or Memento and insisted that this very same lot would soon reboot the Batman franchise to record-breaking success, I'd probably grin politely and begin to eye my exits.
My point is, it's been very close to a decade since director Tom Tykwer made a distinct impression with the fast life and loud sounds of his calling card, Run Lola Run, and to see him helming a Clive Owen-Naomi Watts espionage thriller like The International proves that much more unique when one considers how admirably straight-forward and strait-laced the end result is in comparison, to both his own work and that of others.
Louis Salinger (Owen) used to work for Scotland Yard, which means he used to do law enforcement, specifically with regards to the laws proudly broken by the International Bank of Business and Credit. Now, he covers the case for Interpol, which means intelligence and not interference. Policy still doesn't prevent the most likely leads from ending up on the slab, and the most damning errors from being swept under the rug, as proper jurisdiction and bureaucratic process prove to be equal hurdles to Salinger and NYC District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Watts) as shady corporate motives have. In a world of glassy surfaces and steely glares, these two stand alone as the proverbial boys who cried "Bank!", and one critical business transaction seems to stand between either them or the IBBC bring taken out for good.
Credit first-time writer Eric Singer for giving us the benefit of the doubt by essentially skipping the first act of many other conspiracy thrillers and getting to the case just as it begins to grow inconvenient, and with Owen's character already run down by the scale and apparent futility of his investigation. We know he'll seem paranoid to his peers, determined and yet all alone against the big, bad bank, and it gives Owen a chance to play both ragged and rugged from the get-go, and -- let's face it -- if ever there were a speed this man were born to play...
Naturally, as Owen's character never wears a tie, Watts' character never puts her hair up, and though that touch alone might normally scream "career woman!" (we already see her neglect her loved ones in the name of a case across multiple time zones), it's a little detail that contributes to a borderline hollow performance by the oft-reliable actress. It's a small mercy, both for her and for us, that Singer also spares us the 'threatened family' and 'love triangle' cards.
Together, though, the duo deliver some of the least insulting detective work seen on screen in a good stretch, in some of the most distractingly Euro-slick locations out there (in a good way). Tykwer's veteran director of photography, Frank Griebe, gives everything an ideal cool sheen, and the score credited to Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer himself is considerably pulsing without being aggressively intense. Speaking of which, another Tykwer vet -- Mathilde Bonnefoy -- deserves perhaps the biggest hand for not editing the film itself into an intense, incomprehensible frenzy as so many of its ilk are prone to do; the shots on display here are often held as long as your attention, and in contrast to the similarly set and exceedingly frantic opening car chase to Quantum of Solace, Tykwer and friends know that one shot of one car entering one tunnel and simply not coming out the other side can speak as loudly as any hail of bullets and bumpers.
That isn't to say that there isn't a place for gunfire; if anything, the Guggenheim Museum of Art is where it's at. There's a lot to be said for what is essentially the centerpiece of a film that otherwise boasts little action beyond a foot chase here and a foot chase there. In terms of pacing, the sequence is impeccably placed, paying off the first-hour momentum and extending some goodwill to the second. In this overwhelming reproduction of the museum's rotunda, Owen meets first one and then many assassins, edges meet curves, and art meets action in a way that helps justify the latter as the former -- frankly, the whole shootout's just a doozy and a half.
The posters suggest that Watts is standing right alongside Owen as he riddles the Guggenheim with bullet holes -- she's not. The trailers suggest that there might be more action to this than it seems -- there's not. If there had indeed been reshoots, or if the film had in fact been recut as rumored, then the seams don't seem to show. Throughout, The International is a thankfully, skillfully mature effort by Tykwer to produce a proper thriller for adults, that of a man on a mission, and one lent little extra resonance in our cash-strapped times. Not unlike the IBBC, Sony's marketing department may want to deceive you from your money, using as many bangs as they can for your buck; Tykwer does them one better and actually earns it.