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MOVIE TALK: The International

The International,” which opens tomorrow, February 13, is first-time screenwriter Eric Singer and director Tom Tykwer’s solid and passable—if never genuinely extraordinary—political/corporate thriller. As a script, it deftly follows the steps of your best TV procedural… yet it never fully makes a genuine emotional impact (except for one incredible scene).

Basically, “The International” tells the story of Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), an Interpol agent who has spent the last several years trying to bring down the IBBC, a powerful international bank engaged in illegal arms dealing. (Singer says the idea for the movie was inspired by the real-life arms-trafficking scandal of Pakistan’s Bank of Credit and Commercial International.)

The movie opens as Salinger’s partner is assassinated after meeting a secret witness who could destroy the bank. Determined to avenge his friend’s death, Salinger teams up with Manhattan District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), and the two form a kind of globe-trotting CSI team. They bounce from New York to Italy to the Middle East, following a trail of clues, suspects, and dead bodies they hope will blow open the conspiracy and help them arrest IBBC head Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen).

I won’t tell you what clues, or detective skills, Whitman and Salinger use to follow the trail… because, frankly, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve ever seen Law & Order, you know how it works. In fact, while the movie’s first two thirds globetrot to fun places, they rarely play much bigger (dramatically speaking) than any episode of CSI or Criminal Minds… which isn’t so much a criticism as s simple observation. (I literally found myself wondering, “Um… why would anyone make, or pay to see, this movie? Can’t we watch the exact same thing at home, for free, every Thursday night?”)

And then comes the answer, late in the movie (structurally speaking, just before the second act), when the movie explodes from mere mystery/procedural to HOLY-SHIT-THAT-WAS-ONE-OF-THE-CRAZIEST-SHOOT-EM-UP-SCENES-I-HAVE-EVER-SEEN.

Salinger, along with a couple of Whitman’s New York colleagues, have tailed “the Consultant,” the IBBC’s chief assassin (played by Brian F. O’Byrne), to New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where Salinger attempts to arrest him at gunpoint. “They’ll never let you take me in,” says the Consultant. And he’s right… because before Salinger can get out his handcuffs, a team of machine-gun-toting hit men swarm through the museum, kicking off the movie’s main set piece… a massive gun battle on Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling white ramps.

Here’s all I have to say about the gun battle: IT IS JAW-DROPPING.

First of all, it’s spectacular to look at. The shots of the Guggenheim (which was recreated in almost perfect detail solely for this scene) are gorgeous, but the gunmen also SHOOT THE FUCK OUT OF THE MUSEUM… which is awesome to watch.

Second of all, it’s ridiculous… in a totally elegant, cinematic way. For instance, one of my pet peeves in movies is this: when trained shooters are in a gunfight—especially with an untrained everyman (like Salinger), and THEY STILL CAN’T HIT THE UNTRAINED GUY. It’s a double pet peeve when the untrained everyman, while NOT getting hit by trained shooters, is somehow able to squeeze off enough lucky shots to KILL THE TRAINED ASSASSINS ON HIS TAIL. And it’s a TRIPLE pet peeve when all these gunmen are practically running around in the open, with almost nothing to hide behind, and THEY STILL CAN’T SHOOT EACH OTHER.

Well, suffice it to say: ALL of this happens in the Guggenheim shootout… to a ludicrous extreme… AND IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER, because the whole thing is so wonderfully noisy and messy and violent and stunning that you’re willing to suspend all disbelief just to ogle it. In fact, when the movie’s over, this is probably the only part you’ll really remember. It’s like they shot the scene first, then built the rest of the movie around it.

After this, the movie wraps itself up with a sudden deus ex machina, followed by some confusing plan to take down Skarssen and an anti-climactic rooftop chase which looks like an outtake from “The Bourne Ultimatum.” To be honest, after the shootout in the Guggenheim, it’s hard to watch the movie’s quiet thirty-minute resolution.

So, what does a screenwriter take away from “The International?” Well, there are many things right and many things wrong… but I want to discuss two salient points in particular…

This is one of the biggest flaws of the movie… and, frankly, a dangerous pitfall for many procedurals, whether they’re movies or TV shows.

Yes, Salinger is an obsessed, determined man, but—until late in the movie when the IBBC puts a hit on him—Salinger could walk away from the mystery at any time and nothing would happen. There would be no real consequences. Sure, his partner is murdered in the first scene… but this moment is given very little emotional value. We know almost nothing about their relationship (were they best friends?... student/mentor?... old college roommates?... in love with the same woman?), so it’s tough to assign the murder any genuine emotional weight.

In fact, the partner’s murder never really weighs that heavily on Salinger. There’s one moment, early on, when he mistakenly thinks he might have been poisoned… but beyond that, his life never seems to be in any real danger (until late in the story). As a result, it’s very hard to care whether or not this character closes the case… aside from the enjoyment of just trying to solve the puzzle. (…Which, granted, can be a fun exercise… but I think true storytelling comes from investing emotionally in characters and relationships.)

So lesson #1: just because you’re writing a hard procedural doesn’t mean you don’t have to make your audience care deeply and personally about your main character.

2) NO DEUS EX MACHINA ALLOWED! (Spoiler alert: I am about to ruin a major plot twist in the movie)

I alluded to this above, but the second act break comes when one of the film’s main bad guys—elderly Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the bank’s “recon guru” who gathers secret intel on prospective clients, enemies, etc.—suddenly, for no apparent reason, turns himself over to Salinger, reveals the entire IBBC conspiracy, and offers to help take down Skarssen and the evil bank!

Now, this movie—like many espionage thrillers—exists in a world of double-crossing and backstabbing, but not only is this reversal totally ungrounded in the story’s preceding events… it renders all Whitman and Salinger’s sleuthing totally irrelevant!

In other words, it’s not Salinger and Whitman’s detective work that leads them to the mystery’s solution… it’s the whim of a man who’s suddenly behaving totally out of character! (The story tries to justify it by explaining, in a later scene, that as a young man Wexler was an avowed Communist, but he somehow got swept up in the IBBC’s wealth and power and forgot his Communist ideals… until now, when he’s had a sudden change of heart. Uh… okay. Whatever.)

I supposed you could argue that if Salinger hadn’t been so persistent in digging up IBBC dirt, Wexler may not have decided to flip, but the truth is…
the entire “procedure” of the procedural, the process of following clues toward the mystery’s answer, has nothing to do with the film’s ultimate resolution. (I like to call this “Ocean’s 12Syndrome.”) Had the entire movie NOT happened, Wexler STILL may have turned himself in. Or not. The point is: the key to the mystery is given to Salinger independent of his own actions.

This is simply lazy storytelling… especially when it wouldn’t have been hard to make the dots connect. (How difficult would it have been to have had Salinger learn something important about Wexler’s past and use it against him? Or give Wexler a son/daughter who gets killed thanks to Skarssen’s scheming… and now Wexler wants revenge? Or let Wexler learn Skarssen, for some reason, now wants him killed… and he must turn to Salinger in order to survive?)

So lesson #2: no dues ex machina! Every narrative dot MUST connect, especially in a mystery or procedural, where each bit of logic must be flawless and easy to follow!

Despite its flaws, “The International” is still a worthwhile movie… especially because of the incredible Guggenheim gun battle, which is worth the price of admission. If it weren’t for that, I’d say this movie is a good rental… but I can’t imagine that gunfight will ever be as beautiful at home as it is on the big screen.

The International

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