The concept is hardly new. As far back as the Bible people were writing things like "the love of money is the root of all evil." But with the recent collapse of financial institutions exposing greed and corruption at every level, and average Joes and Janes paying the price with severed retirement lifelines, the theme hits home just a little harder these days.
So why doesn't "The International" resonate more?
Well, let me quote from the box cover notes: "Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is determined to expose an arms dealing ring responsible for facilitating acts of terrorism around the globe. But as his investigation leads Salinger and his partner, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), deeper into the secret world of greed, corruption and murder, they become targets of a deadly conspiracy so vast, they soon find the only people left to trust . . . are each other."
Come on. The characters and names may be different, but the notion of people in high places with fat wallets involved in a conspiracy "so vast" you can't trust anyone is hardly new. And this boilerplate description carries over into the film itself. As the investigation unfolds, there's not enough intrigue, partly because we know how this formula plays out, and partly because we're told up-front that it's those dirty rotten scoundrel bankers who are responsible. The arms stuff comes in later, but the script makes it darned clear who the villains are, and this time they're not just foreclosing on some poor widow who couldn't make her mortgage payment. They're speculating in the weapons market the way others do with pork bellies and spring wheat. Why? Well, that's what Salinger wants to find out. But if you think about it, it's not all that big of a mystery. Money is power, power is money, and the people who have it always seem to want more of it--even if it means cutting ethical corners or, heck, just blowing them away with a .357 magnum.
Big Brother in this film is the IBBC--the International Bank of Business and Credit--and as one of the IBBC top dogs says, "This is the nature of the banking industry: to make us all slaves to debt." God damn the pusher!
But the nice thing about international intrigue is that there are international settings. "The International" was filmed on-location in New York City, Berlin, Istanbul, Milan, Potsdam, and surrounding areas. The structures are impressive, and the world in which these people move and shake is big and expansive, full of penthouse offices and apartments. We cut from here to there as the two investigators try to solve the mystery, though revenge is also a primary motive. In an opening sequence, Whitman's partner (Ian Burfield, as Thomas Schumer) is bumped off in "mysterious" fashion. And I use the quotation marks because we've seen this before too, and yet everyone else seems mystified by it. Gun shot on a range and then a casing carefully picked up with tweezers to be planted later? Seen it before. Chases and shootouts? Nothing new here either. Villains? Though the locations will remind folks of the Bond films, the bad guys are bankers and banking "associates" (ummm, the guys with guns), but not really stand out-not even Armin Mueller-Stahl as William Wexler, or Ulrich Thomsen as Jonas Skarssen.
The biggest surprise for me, in fact, was learning through the dialogue that "Interpol is not in the law enforcement business." They're about gathering information and intelligence. That actually muddies the waters a little, as a joint investigation between involving the Manhattan D.A.'s office can be a little tough to wrap around. As for the structure, the first two acts are mostly dialogue and as slow-paced as a "Columbo" investigation, while the final act kind of careens toward a conclusion, as if it suddenly occurred to director Tom Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run") that he'd better inject some action into this "thriller" because there just aren't all that many in the first two-thirds. The script comes from feature-film first-timer Eric Winger, whose only previous credit was a 1995 episode of "Aeon Flux." Why it took him fourteen years between credits seems like more of a mystery than what we have here. And yet, to be fair, it is intelligently written. It's just that we've seen it all before, and rather than tension bubbling all through the film we get a routine feeling investigation and a hurry-up resolution. Even an attempt at a backstory for Salinger seems undernourished and half-hearted.
You won't catch me complaining about Frank Griebe's cinematography, though. Griebe and his photographers have a nice eye for detail and a natural sense of how to compose a shot so that it captures the emotional or informational essence of a scene. A meeting with the bank executive's lawyer in one of those top-floor offices is shot with foreshortening of the table between them to emphasize the gulf, for example, and a shot of the headquarters is a full longshot that shows the gargantuan metal and glass structure in all its imposing ignominy.
And I can't fault the performances, either. Owen and Watts and their co-stars do a fine job of selling the situation and their characters. But as Shakespeare wrote, you can't gild a lily. Well, you can, but a lily is still a lily. And this competent but unoriginal film can't rise above the limitations of the script.
Thank goodness the 1080p Hi-Def looks as good as it does. I can't find anything wrong with this picture. The colors and skin-tones are natural, the black levels are strong, the amount of detail is superb (on the faces and digits especially), and the only grain we get is when the camera deliberately goes for an unfocussed background. Even when the action ratchets up, the level of detail is wonderful. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer appears to be a good one, with no noticeable artifacts and no glitches or hitches. "The International" comes to Blu-ray on a 50-gig disc, presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also strong, a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 in English or French that has a subtle bass rumble and interesting separation of sounds across the channels. When piano high notes tinkle in the background they're not just static--they move diagonally from rear to front, and things like this add audio interest and contribute to what feels like a nice, dynamic soundtrack. Ambient sound abounds, but never distracts. And when those gunshots finally come? Pure audio pleasure! Additional audio options are in Spanish or Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, with English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
"The International" comes with Digital Copy. Exclusive to Blu-ray (Profile 1.1) is a picture-in-picture track that gives pop-up trivia and background on the shooting of the film, with clips and talking heads interspersed throughout. Some of that info is duplicated (which I don't have a problem with, given that half of the Blu-ray owners don't have Profile 1.1 compatibility) on a half-hour making-of feature. "The Autostadt" is a five-minute clip showing behind-the-scenes filming at VW, while "The Architecture of 'The International'" takes six minutes to explore the ultra-modern architecture that reinforces the Big Brother theme, and "Shooting at the Guggenheim" talks about the construction of a set that could be riddled with bullets. Then there's an extended scene that runs a little over 11 minutes, and for those with Profile 2.0 players, CineChat (where you can watch with friends and send onscreen messages).
"The International" is a competent film with a competent cast, despite a by-the-numbers script. It's just unfortunate that we've seen so much of this before, and that the film meanders, then lurches earnestly toward a conclusion.