There’s a shootout at the Guggenheim Museum in the middle of The International that’s about as cheery a spectacle as an action film can offer. One minute a cathedral hush prevails in Frank Lloyd Wright’s creamy architectural spiral, and visitors pace around gazing reverently at tiresome art installations. The next minute, blam-blam-blam-blam-blam, running, screaming, chaos, blood, and all that creamy whiteness is pocked with bullet holes. It’s immensely satisfying.
To figure out why it’s satisfying, there’s no need to call your analyst, of course. We still have some remaining sense of the basic injustice of our world. We know it just isn’t right, living our lives of petty humiliation and pain and mess that nobody cares about, played out against all those big, beautiful, carefully-tended buildings and slick cosmopolitan surfaces, with platoons of security guards always there to make sure none of our death-fluids get on the nice white paint. People mock the desire of action film fans to see things blow up real good, but we’re absolutely right to want to see certain things blow up, to see blood on the walls.
Pause here to sing two verses and a chorus of “The Internationale” accompanied by clenched-fist salute. No, seriously, you’ll feel better. “Arise, wretched of the earth…!”
So there you have Tom Tykwer’s The International in a nutshell. It’s all shiny fronts that our angry hero, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) keeps trying to bust through, to no avail, because there’s always another shiny front behind that one, and another guy in an expensive suit telling him it’s no use. He’s nominally trying to bring down a bank, the IBBC, which is engaged in even more nefarious activities than most banks, apparently. This accidental bit of topicality is helping the movie’s marketing team a lot—how we hate those filthy banks!—but I’m not sure it really matters what the nefarious institution is. In Point Blank back in 1967, it was a vague conglomerate called The Organization that Lee Marvin took on, killing his way up the corporate ladder trying to get justice and the $93,000 owed to him, only to find that nobody handles cash anymore and there’s no real Mr. Big to confront, just an endless proliferation of soul-sickening managerial types.
The International is a direct descendant of Point Blank (though not nearly so crazy and great—but then, nothing is) and the subsequent paranoid thrillers of the ‘70s. Be warned that if you’re not into existential angst impeding the flow of your action, this isn’t the movie for you. There’s a lot of Clive Owen stalking around various cities all unkempt and unshaven to show how obsessed he is—which is pleasant if you like Clive Owen. Occasionally he’s accompanied by Naomi Watts as a lawyer, and both are so wan and despondent you know right away there will be no obligatory sex scenes. Owen’s character seems to strike more sparks off the mousy assassin played by Brian F. O’Byrne, who unexpectedly and rather romantically helps him shoot his way out of the Guggenheim. But that doesn’t come to anything either—nothing does.
This is one of those Futility Films, which can be pretty good if you’re in the mood for them. Characters, even the ones with power, keep exchanging sad little bromides that are, apparently, the sum of all they know about how to navigate modernity. Old Armin Muehler-Stahl, as a world-weary former Stasi agent, says, “Sometimes a man can meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Blandly villainous Ulrich Thomsen says, “What do you do when there’s no way out? Go further in.”
And Jack Sparrow sums it all up when looking at a coded map of the New World, saying “That’s just maddeningly unhelpful.” Oh wait, that’s another movie.
The thing is, we’ve seen this kind of film a lot, the one that gets us right up to the point where Our Hero is stopped cold by the diffuse horrors of modern life. In Point Blank, awesome Lee Marvin does a great job of collapsing into comical bewilderment in the end: “But SOMEBODY’S gotta pay,” he says plaintively. If Lee Marvin can’t get satisfaction, nobody can. Therefore, we’re irrevocably screwed. Decades of subsequent paranoid action thrillers with their blank, “Now what?” endings are logical follow-ups, and The International continues in this tradition of telling us what we already know to our sorrow.
Somebody tell us something we don’t know! We need a fast sequel, The International II: Hey Guys I Have a Cunning Plan That’ll Fix Everything.
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