Directed by Tom Twyker, written by Eric Singer, the thriller “The International” is a compelling, well-conceived film chock-a-block with mayhem and intrigue; a story of redemption and payback, where whatever means justify one particular end.
It’s the story of an effort led by Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), Interpol agent, with the help of Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), to end a nasty case of corporate corruption.
In an era dotted by banking chicanery, malfeasance, and worse, the film strikes a relevant note. It’s a note of caution, not relief, because, as the ending notes, and as the head bad guy Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen) predicts, taking out one bad banker and another one sprouts up in his place.
Twyker keeps us on edge with both the peril (anyone associated with turning on the global banking empire suddenly dies; an amazing shootout in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum) and the threat of peril (the bank’s reach extends everywhere).
Beyond the hits, assassinations, and downright murders, the movie hinges on both honor (fueled by duty as well as regret) as well on the quiet appearance of a nervous breakdown in the person of Salinger, who doesn’t look scruffy, he looks like he’s about to fall to pieces (kaleidoscope eyes, trembling hands, some inconvenient hesitation).
Twyker nicely balances big and small pictures. Without complication or muddle, he lays out a scheme by which the bank entrenches itself deeper in the world’s financial market by serving as middle man between arms shippers (Turkey) and arms buyers (China), thus controlling a sizeable chunk of the world economy’s debt. An interesting concept, that: socioeconomic and political power as a function of accounts receivable.
He also nicely lays out Salinger’s backstory in stages. Two years before, about to close down the bank, his case suddenly and mysteriously shut down. He went not a little mental and ballistic. Owen is well cast as a straight shooter. The voice alone could define his character: flinty, a tad unstable, and relentless. Add his desperate eyes and his physical bulk, and you’ve got a guy that will get the job done, one way or another.
The climactic action in the film is based on morality (the leading-up action is based on greed). Once Salinger gets his hands on Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl), one of Skarssen’s senior advisors, he decides to step outside the law and jets off to Turkey. On a roof top, he delivers in response to Skarssen’s question, the movie’s best line: “Who said anything about arresting you?”
The most interesting character was Mueller-Stahl’s Wilhelm Wexler. You get the sense that all along he was playing Von Stauffenberg to Skarssen’s Hitler. He didn’t approve of all the bank’s pervasive and escalating violence (hit men killing a hit man hired to kill Salinger; a hit man killing the assassin of political aspirant – damn they’re thorough) and was about to turn. Or get snuffed.
In a confessional scene in the basement of a bail bondsman’s office, he has a meeting of the souls with Salinger. He reveals his East German Stasi background, admits his regret (wife dead, daughter suicide), and decides to make amends and help his captor. From there the movie quickly heads towards the resolution on the rooftop in Turkey.
What an ending. It doesn’t so much suggest a sequel as ask us if all the effort extended in the movie was worthwhile. The final scene answers, in chilling fashion, through a series of newspaper headlines that report how others quickly took Skarssen’s place and the world continued along its corrupt and calamitous path, Peggy Lee’s iconic question “Is that all there is?”