Words, Music & Screen

Discussions and Reviews by Thomas Itty

SEPTEMBER 13, 2020



Directed by Tom Tykwer and original screenplay by Eric Warren Singer

Movie Review and Discussion by Thomas Itty

I watched "The International" (2009), for maybe the third time, last night. My wife saw a bit of the movie with me before she went to bed. We'd seen it together at the movies when it first came out.

"It's too bad they don't make movies like this anymore," she said.

It's true... the glory days of gritty political and crime thrillers seems to have ended around 2010. There used to be a steady stream of such movies, aimed at a mature audience, since the 1940s. Some of my favorites include "The 39 Steps," "North By Northwest," "The Manchurian Candidate," "Three Days of the Condor," "The Conversation," "The Parallax View," "Spy Game," "Body Of Lies," "The Bourne Identity," "Inside Man," "The Fugitive," "The Crying Game," "The Interpreter," "The Town," and "Patriot Games" to name a few. In the past decade, however, movies that fit into this category are few and far between... "The Gunman," "Sicario," "Gone Girl," "Skyfall," "Wind River"... I can't remember any others of the top of my head. I'm talking about thrillers with solid screenplays, slightly complicated story-lines, decent acting, suspense, believable action scenes, and a general mise en scène that isn't incongruous with your suspension of disbelief. Of course there have been hundreds of action, spy, adventure, and crime movies made in the past decade, but the language of cinema seems to have changed.  I think these days, instead of technology making movies more believable, it's making them more unbelievable. Most of the action is over the top and unrealistic... and don't even get me talking about superhero movies!

"The International" is an old-school, taut, political thriller. Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is an Interpol agent who is on the trail of IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit), a bank that he suspects is more than just a financial institution. At the start of the movie, one of his colleagues is in Berlin meeting with André Clement, a director of the bank, who tells him that IBBC is buying weapons from China to sell to third-world nations. A few minutes later though the agent dies suddenly — apparently of a heart attack — just before he can cross the street and meet Salinger. The informant, Clement, also dies in a suspicious car accident later that same day. Salinger suspects it is murder when he examines his colleague's body and finds a small puncture wound on his back.

Salinger's partner in the investigation is Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts). The duo meet with the German police who are unwilling to start an investigation into the two deaths. Salinger sees a discrepancy in the statement of Jonas Skarssen, the CEO of IBBC who was with Clement the day he died. He sets up an appointment to meet with him but when he gets to the bank's offices he is met instead by Skarssen's attorney, Martin White. He has the local police chief with him who produces an official police report showing the corrected “error." Meanwhile Whitman, after repeatedly calling Clement's widow is told by her to speak to Umberto Calvini, the CEO of a weapons manufacturing company that has dealings with IBBC. He is also a candidate for Prime Minister of Italy.

Salinger and Whitman meet with Calvini in Milan just before the start of the candidate's political rally. Calvini readily admits IBBC bought missiles from China in order to sell them at a profit, and that they are involved with regime change in Africa and elsewhere. He warns Salinger that the people who run the bank are so powerful they can kill anyone who discovers too much. A few minutes later Calvini is shot dead by a sniper while he is giving his speech. They use two assassins for the job. The first is a fall guy who misses his mark but is shot and killed by the corrupt local police chief. Meanwhile on the roof directly above the first assassin is the professional killer (who is the bank's regular hit man) who kills Calvani with a shot to the head. Salinger discovers an unusual shoe print (with the impression of a leg brace) on the roof that he connects to the other two murders. When he and Whitman check the camera footage of outbound passengers who have had to remove their leg braces at the airport they discover the identity of the assassin. He is on his way to New York, where he lives.

Salinger and Whitman, with the help of two NYPD detectives, locate the assassin's apartment and follow him to a meeting he is having with Wexler, a director at IBBC, at the Guggenheim museum. Wexler tells the assassin that Salinger is his next target. In reality though, Wexler is setting him up. The board of directors of the bank have decided that the assassin is a loose end so they have dispatched another group of assassins to the Guggenheim to kill him. Salinger and the two detectives who are trailing the assassin see him meet with Wexler. One of them follows Wexler outside, arrests him and takes him to a secret location where Whitman is waiting. Meanwhile, the assassin spots Salinger and the NYPD detective at the Guggenheim. Just then the other killers arrive and start firing at the assassin...

The next scene is the best one in the movie... and the iconic shoot-out inside the Guggenheim museum that the movie is famous for...

The actual Guggenheim was being renovated at that time so they recreated the museum completely using CG as well as real sets for the outside and inside. Here's an interesting article on how they did it. In this movie, technology is used well to create a virtual mise en scène that is believable and not possible to achieve in any other way.

At the end of the shootout at the Guggenheim, the other NYPD detective is killed while the assassin and Salinger manage to take out all the other hired guns. However, the assassin also takes a few bullets to his chest and dies outside on the street after warning Salinger that the bank will kill everyone who gets in their way.

Meanwhile, Wexler is being held in a secret location by Whitman and the other NYPD detective. Salinger goes there and gets him to flip on the bank by asking him if he wants to end his life being exactly what he despised as a young man. It is the scene with the most memorable line in the movie when Salinger tells Wexler... "Sometimes you find your destiny on the road you took to avoid it..." Indeed! Wexler reluctantly agrees to help Salinger but tells him that the only way to bring down the bank is to step outside of the law.

The conclusion of the movie takes place in Istanbul where Salinger and Wexler work together to bring down Skarssen. They elicit the help of Umberto Calvini's sons who have their own assassins at their disposal. I won't spoil the ending. Watch the movie...

"The International" is directed by German director and writer Tom Tykwer who wrote and directed "Run Lola Run," in 1998. Since then he has written and directed, "Cloud Atlas," (as well as other movies) and is one of the creators and writers of the current TV Series, "Babylon Berlin." If you like the genre, "The International" is a very watchable film. Clive Owen is great as an Interpol agent and Watts plays her (limited) part well. However, if you want character depth and romance in your movies, then this one isn't for you. Salinger has no personal life whatsoever in the movie and the only back-story we glean about him is that he worked at Scotland Yard and left acrimoniously. Whitman is shown with a family in one scene but we don't get to see more of them. The evil bank CEO, Skarssen, on the other hand gets a little more screen time with his son where he is shown apparently grooming him for a life of immoral capitalistic enterprise.

All in all, "The International" is a well-done, intelligent thriller with a good cast, great locations, gritty action, good dialog, and one very memorable action sequence at the Guggenheim museum. My recommendation is to watch it if you haven't.

It is available on Amazon Prime as well as on DVD, and BlueRay.

Here's the trailer:

Tom Tykwer— writer and director