Friday, February 13, 2009

"The International": an apt release of an "international" thriller on Economic Stimulus Day


I live movies that state moral dilemmas and paradoxes, even if they sound a bit trite or contrived. A good one appears in “The International” when an ex-comrade Wilhelm (Armin Mueller-Stalhl) tells almost freelance Interpol cop Lou Salinger (Clive Owen) that “fiction has to make sense, but truth does not.” That rung with me, because of a past incident a few years ago about how some of my Internet “fiction” was taken at a school where I had subbed – it made too much sense and scared them, and truth was much more complicated. And somewhere Lou says something like, if you lose yourself you can’t get reconstitute yourself (an apparent paraphrase of “personal honor is an absolute – once honor is lost, it cannot be regained” in Joe Steffan’s book "Honor Bound").

It’s interesting that this 70s-style almost Cold War thriller premiers on the day that Congress is supposed to vote on Obama’s economic stimulus package (already much maligned), as it seems to present an alternative view of how a world financial meltdown might happen (outside of “Goldfinger”, that is). Actually, BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International) (BCCI) is a bank in Karachi, Pakistan and registered in Luxembourg, and it was involved in a major arms trafficking scandal around 1991. The Wikipedia article on BCCI is interesting.

There is an explanation in the dialogue of the script, that the bank supplies People’s Republic arms to both sides of the Middle East crisis to keep everybody in debt. But isn’t that what Wall Street did for the years leading up to the Collapse of 2008, try to make us all debtors?

German director Tom Tykwer (working here with writer Eric Singer on what looks like that writer's first film) is known for crisp and somewhat enigmatic movies (Winter Sleepers, Run Lola Run) based on puzzles; this time, he has made a more stereotyped Hollywood thriller, with plenty of exotic locations and assassins. Well, it’s not quite that stereotyped, as there is quite a bit of indie-like detail common in German cinema. The opening scene, in front of the Berlin train station, is shocking enough; after a middle aged operative gets out of a smoke-filled car, he clutches over, vomits on camera, and drops dead while Salinger gets grazed by a passing car trying to help him. I recalled my own 1999 trip and believe that I must have started my own train journey East (to Krakow) at a different station (and I remember having the reservation date wrong and having to pay off the porter to get a sleeper – how old times come back when one goes to the movies). Soon we are in a morgue, as Owen’s character is well enough to examine the corpse himself, and Tykwer lets us see or at least extrapolate the deceased character’s pre-death state of necrosis: his pudginess and balding legs (after all, he had smoked in the car, hadn’t he). The rest of the film keeps some degree of grit even in the most exotic locations: I’d love to sit in a sidewalk café in Lyon, France myself, and I realize that not all of Europe is slick and pretty by a long shot. Clive Owen is appropriately grizzled; his shirt is always open; in a late scene where he plays tourist in Istanbul, he wears an earpiece but apparently no chest wire (as in “Se7en”) to listen in; he wants to remain unscathed despite all the shootouts. The showdown in New York’s Guggenheim (that didn’t try to use Bilbao’s, which I visited in 2001) is the most brutal modern shootout scene outside of the 1996 film Heat.

This film is a little bit like “Taken” (France) (although Owen is a bit more nuanced than Neeson) in that European directors are trying to morph their national styles into Hollywood thrillers, for Columbia Pictures (site for this film is called Everybody pays) here.

The 4 PM show in a new, large AMC auditorium at Tyson’s corner VA was more than half full on a Friday afternoon, of opening day.

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