The International

(2009) *** R
118 min. Sony Pictures Releasing. Director: Tom Tykwer. Cast: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, Brian O'Byrne.

/content/films/3346/2.jpgPlenty of films have courted comparisons to the paranoid thrillers of the '70s (like The Parallax View), but few have earned them. Tom Tykwer's The International is an exception, an ambitious and effective screw-turner about the insidious reach of a multinational bank. The premise sounds like a recipe for Hollywood stupidity, but the literate screenplay by Eric Warren Singer avoids most of the traps of the genre. With its investigation (and a few expertly conceived action set pieces), The International builds a compelling case.

Singer takes as inspiration the banking scandals of the '80s and '90s: the crimes of the now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commercial International and the murder of Banco Ambrosiano director Roberto Calvi. The bank in the film, named IBBC, participates in all manner of international political meddling, most notably in the area of arms dealing. Clive Owen plays Louis Salinger, a dogged Interpol agent whose rumpled clothes and baggy eyes betray that his investigation of the IBBC affords no time for luxuries like sleep. When one of her colleagues is murdered after meeting with a whistle-blower, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) of the New York District Attorney's Office steps up her involvement with Salinger. He's been pursuing the IBBC for years and already narrowly survived one career "crash and burn," but he can't let the case go. "Whatever case we have always gets lost in the complexities of international law," he seethes. Later, a reluctant whistleblower patiently explains to Salinger that he'll have to step away from the law if he's ever to catch the bank red-handed.

The cabal pulling the strings at IBBC includes chief Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen) and shadowy consultant Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Among other nefarious strategies, they order an assassination from a "consultant" (Brian F. O'Byrne), but once the job is done, he's a liability. If Salinger and Whitman can find him before the IBBC, they can flip him and expose the bank's crimes. This competition comes to a head in an outstanding action sequence set in the Guggenheim. Reportedly the film underwent reshoots to bolster the action, and whatever the filmmakers did works: a little goes a long way, allowing the rest of the film to follow the characters as they wear down shoe leather and argue politics ("You control debt, you control everything") and philosophy ("Sometimes man can meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it").

Tykwer, director of photography Frank Griebe and production designer Uli Hanisch conspire to give the film an unsettling visual design: the sleek interioprs are towers of power looking out onto famous skylines. The breathtaking exteriors make expert use of enough cities to justify the title: Berlin, Lyon, Milan, New York, and Istanbul. The International would appear at first glance to be a generic "international thriller" a la The Interpreter. But Tykwer's film turns out to be surprisingly compelling, despite the fact that the characters are never fleshed out. We know them through their choices in each moment. Salinger turns out to be Oedipal in ways that have nothing to do with his folks, but everything to do with obsession and meeting destiny on the road. In an amusing bit of metawriting, Mueller-Stahl's character sums up the tragic absurdity of it all: "There is a difference between truth and fiction. Fiction has to make sense."

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 6/9/2009

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

New to Blu-ray, The International comes with a sensational, picture-perfect transfer and a bristling Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix that together bring home the film's theatrical effect. The special edition kicks off with a serious minded but engaging commentary with director Tom Tykwer and writer Eric Singer that explores the film's inception, development, and production, as well as its concept and themes.

The Blu-ray exclusive The International Experience: Picture in Picture offers behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew amounting to a video commentary track.

"Salinger & Whitman - Extended Scene" (11:23, HD) is a salvaged chunk out of an earlier cut of the film, nicely presented in HD.

The thoughtful and enjoyable "Making The International" (30:07, HD) explains the journey of Singer's script to film, including Tykwer's concept and specific behind-the-scenes details (such as the recreation of the Guggenheim). Participants include Singer, Tykwer, production designer Uli Hanisch, Clive Owen, costume designer Ngila Dickson, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Bryan F. O'Byrne, editor Mathilde Bonnefoy, Ulrich Thomsen, and producers Richard Suckle, Charles Roven, and Lloyd Phillips.

"Shooting at the Guggenheim" (6:32, SD) goes into further detail about shooting the major sequence on the Guggenheim set, with comments from Tykwer, art director Sarah Horton, and Hanisch.

"The Architecture of The International" (6:12, HD) looks at the literal architecture of the film and features interviews with Roven, Tykwer, Hanisch, and Owen.

"The Autostadt" (5:04, HD) explores how The International became the first film to shoot at Volkswagen's "Car City" theme park. Participants include Tykwer, Phillips, Autostadt creative director Maria Schneider, Roven, Hanisch, and Owen.

BD-Live accessibility allows for Cinechat, and a second disc holds a Digital Copy of the film.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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