Stimulus Man


Sometimes timing is everything, and what could be more appropriate than a hyperbolically paranoid thriller in which the big bad villain turns out to be ... a bank?

Tom Tykwer's The International is an expertly crafted load of hokum. It's goofy as hell, suffering from broad missteps that typically befall recently imported European art-film directors whenever they attempt to tackle the Hollywood genre product.

The German Tykwer is a fascinating dude, undeniably skilled and more than a little bit insane. It makes sense to hire him for a big-budget action flick, as in films both overrated (Run, Lola, Run) and underrated (The Princess and the Warrior), he showboats his natural-born knack for cosmically infused kinetic energy.

But right from the get-go, The International exhibits a weird tone-deafness, with performances of various shapes and sizes bumping up against one another uncomfortably, almost as if nobody's certain how seriously they're supposed to take all this nonsense.

The International

C Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts

Director: Tom Tykwer

Opens Fri., Feb. 13

The one man taking it extremely seriously is Clive Owen--disheveled, furious and working his smoldering mojo as disgruntled Interpol agent Lou Salinger. In standard cop-on-the-edge fashion, Lou's wrecked his personal life and trashed his career, all in pursuit of the rather disappointingly named International Bank of Business and Credit. He knows the IBBC is up to no good, but every time our hero comes close to cracking a case, his witnesses end up dying in freak accidents. For some reason poor Lou always finds himself demoted.

This bank, we are told, has connections at every level of government in every country. It's all one giant conspiracy, allowing the IBBC to effortlessly alter official police statements or autopsy reports, and they've even got a hit man known only as the Consultant (an eerie Brian F. O'Byrne) to take care of all their pesky assassination needs.

But the nagging question left by first-timer Eric Singer's screenplay is obvious: Why would such a monolithic, all-powerful organization allow itself to be hamstrung by arranging petty arms deals with tinhorn Third World dictators? Apparently the IBBC is so leveraged during this economic apocalypse, the only thing that can possibly save them from bankruptcy is a single stress-filled missile swap. (Sadly, Singer missed a prime opportunity to explain this unlikely scenario by blaming it all on shit mortgages.)

Working, rather inexplicably, with Naomi Watts' New York district attorney, Owen's attack dog seizes the moment and attempts to take the bank down once and for all, inspiring a number of complicated action scenes so exquisitely helmed by Tykwer, you'll desperately want to forgive the rest of the movie for being so unintentionally funny.

Watts is just awful here, reduced to spouting exposition in her clanging, unconvincing American accent. But Owen commits to the unworthy material 1,000 percent--sweating, seething and glowering into the camera.

Tykwer, bless his crazy heart, still loves to muster up a mood by setting epic staring contests to throbbing, hypnotic synth pop (he helped compose the score alongside Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil). The International's jaw-dropping centerpiece sequence is a 14-minute cat-and-mouse surveillance effort in New York City's Guggenheim Museum.

Stealthily snaking up the Manhattan landmark's spiral rotunda, Owen stalks O'Byrne's elusive Consultant, and every shimmering reflective surface and postmodern video art installation becomes fodder for visual mischief. Tykwer abandons dialogue altogether and allows cinematographer Frank Griebe's camera to insinuate itself around corners and into privileged positions. It's sinewy, voyeuristic and worthy of a young Brian De Palma.

Then everybody breaks out machine guns.

It's easy to slip into hyperbole when trying to explain a gonzo action sequence that's been pulled off with the sort of full-tilt precision and exquisite attention to craftsmanship Tykwer demonstrates here. Personally, I'm tempted to say it's the best movie shoot-out since Michael Mann turned downtown L.A. into the Gaza Strip halfway through Heat. (And just between us, a certain esteemed critic from a major metropolitan daily leapt to his feet when the bullets finally stopped, giving the scene a standing ovation.)

The great filmmaker Howard Hawks once famously said that the key to making a good movie was "three good scenes and no bad ones." The International has a bunch of bad scenes ... but the good one is downright amazing.


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