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Keep your friends close, and your financier closer. That's the gist of The International, which ticks along quite nicely for a slow-burn thriller until its lack of definable villain and ultimate resolution can't hold the movie together, leaving the film to peter out like a deflating balloon. German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) is an inspired choice and star Clive Owen turns in a compulsively watchable performance, yet the movie crawls to a halt, as if some part of it got stuck in the dirt just as it was touching down. Viewers looking for an intelligent, deliberate respite from Bourne-style, quick-cut shaky-cam thrillers may enjoy it, but it's a flawed experience.
Owen plays Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent still stinging from the questionable dissolution of his previous attempt to bring down the International Bank of Business and Credit. While the IBBC makes friends with potentially volatile third-world countries and buys up warheads to sweeten the deal, Salinger and Manhattan assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) are following a path of death and illicit deeds they hope will lead right back to the bank. Hopping from country to country in search of a solid candidate for interrogation, they find their investigation threatened at every turn by someone who's been bought, paid off, or killed in order to dead-end the search.
I'm a fan of police procedurals, and while The International starts out thick with details about the bank and its political dealings, I found it highly entertaining. It's during this half of the film that Owen is particularly effective -- he gets the exposition across with a spark in his eyes that keeps the film alive for the patient viewer. His intensity sets the tone where the pacing doesn't: while the film boasts a fair amount of action, including the show-stopping shootout in the Guggenheim museum (at the center of the film's ad campaign), this is still a dramatic thriller and not a breakneck revenge film. The shootout was added after-the-fact due to poor test screenings; while it's the action highlight of the film, don't let the movie sucker you in on the promise of gunplay alone or it will be a letdown.
Fans of director Tom Tykwer will appreciate the clinical but often stunning cinematography and highly specific uses of sound design and music throughout the movie. Watching the trailer, I wasn't able to sense Tykwer's fingerprints on the movie and I almost wondered why he took the project, but in the final picture his signature is evident. On this DVD, he cites inspirations such as The French Connection, and the movie briefly ascends to a similar tone (it's brief, but a tailing scene definitely has shadows of the 1971 film's effectiveness). It's also refreshing to see an adult-oriented, R-rated thriller, especially from Sony, whose projects generally seem interested in playing to younger audiences. The first time I saw it, I didn't even realize it had been given an R until it was aready going, and while effective films can be made with the lower rating, it was still a welcome change from a huge portion of today's thrillers.
Watching The International again on DVD, I realize the problem is that we see either too much or too little of the bank's apparent chairman, Jonas Skaarsen (Ulrich Thomsen). Most of The International is driven more by Salinger's obsession than it is any real threat or menace the bank poses. Sure, nobody wants to think about banks handling the puppet strings on a foreign civil war or assassinating politicians, but that doesn't make it an eminent threat: we still need to have an effective villain in the movie. Skaarsen is too personable; he doesn't seem menacing enough to be a real threat to anyone (or worthy of Salinger's rage), so we either need him or his goals to be more overtly, immediately dangerous or the bank to be a more omnipresent, impenetrable mystery.
Still, while it isn't a masterpiece, I was engrossed during the majority of The International, and having seen it in theaters, I felt its low-key thrills were even more effective on DVD. In the last minute, the movie falters, and while they say "it's the thought that counts," it's hard not to feel twice as let down that the film can't quite deliver; had the movie been able to stick the ending, it might have been an underrated little gem. As it stands, it's still an agreeable night in for the right kind of filmgoer: just keep your expectations of the movie's tone and ultimate quality in check, and it might be enough to forget your problems, financial or otherwise, for a couple of hours.
The International comes in a Eco-Box case with the recycling logo punched through the front and a pinwheel-thing punched in under the disc, with a fairly terrible-looking Photoshopped image gracing the cover. The film didn't get a very good theatrical poster either; I guess there aren't many thrilling ways to sum up a slow-burn thriller about a menacing bank, but Clive Owen and Naomi Watts only resemble themselves in the post-processing image. The back cover is crowded and poorly organized. There is no insert, and the menus are pretty nicely done. The DVD also comes with a sticker offering a free digital subscription to Maxim, activated with a code on the reverse side of the sticker.
When I saw The International in DLP in theaters, I was blown away by the crystal clarity of the digital image; you could see every piece of stubble on Clive Owen's face, every ridge in an imperfect piece of concrete. Frankly, I felt the cold detail of the image was an integral, intentional part of the movie's cinematography. There's a mess of newspaper and internet clippings tacked to Louis' office wall, and all sorts of detailed patterns in clothing and the scenery, especially in the film's foreign locations. In the bonus features, Tykwer confirms my suspicions: parts of the film were shot in 65mm to increase the film's resolution.
This 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation doesn't have any serious digital defects (maybe just a touch of edge enhancement), but it is softer than the theatrical version I saw in February, and some of those vivid, striking details are lost. Midrange closeups look good and exhibit a lot of texture, but wider or extreme close ups reveal the detail deficiency in this standard-definition picture. Color, meanwhile, comes to the rescue: the movie's cold tones are vividly represented in every scene with rich, inky blacks amd perfect skin tones. So how to judge? Not everyone has a Blu-Ray player, and people who didn't see the movie already won't even notice the detail missing, but I did. On one hand, I'd definitely recommend getting the high-definition version of the film if you have a choice, but the regular DVD's picture is strong for the format. Just keep in mind the film can and has looked better.
I've said it already, but I'll say it again: The International is not really an action movie. It does have an entertaining action setpiece, which brings the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track to life with whizzing bullets and breaking glass, but during the long stretches of dialogue, the occasional intense, prolonged ringing that Salinger occasionally hears and the uncertain, trepidatious score by director Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil will keep your surround channels working. French Dolby Surround is also included, as well as English, French and Spanish subtitles. As a side note, I continue to be disappointed that on-screen subtitles are often removed and redone as player-generated subtitles when Sony films are released on home video, which happens to The International.
The disc opens with a feature-length audio commentary by director Tom Tykwer and screenwriter Eric Singer. Unfortunately, it's not as good as some of Tykwer's other tracks, especially the one on Run Lola Run. Singer and Tykwer talk about their inspirations for the movie (including the aforementioned French Connection), and the process of beating the script into shape, and their goals with the charactcters and story. It's just a tad too dry for my tastes, and the basic heart of the information on this commentary is repeated in a more interesting fashion elsewhere on the DVD. IF you're a huge commentary buff, it might be worth a listen, but don't make it your first stop.
There's only one deleted scene, but "Salinger and Whitman - Extended Scene" (11:23), as it's called on the menu, is a particularly interesting excision from the movie's first twenty minutes. First, it gives us a little more of Salinger's paranoia, when he spots a dead bird and some shady figures that may or may not be following he and Eleanor, then moves on to hint, ever so lightly, at an attraction between the two characters, then reveals a little more about their personal lives, notably including the appearance of Salinger's daughter when he arrives back home. The disturbing ringing is also integrated well. It's a shame that this scene likely slowed the movie down, as it's almost completely interesting.
Four featurettes are provided. "The Making of The International" (30:06) is, surprisingly, one of the best studio-produced making-of featurettes I've seen in awhile. A considerable amount of information is provided about the themes and why certain choices were made, alongside a solid amount of behind-the-scenes footage. "Shooting at The Guggenheim" (6:32) is a little more promotional and repeats a few soundbytes from the main featurette, but it's still an interesting look at the recreated museum used in the film's big action sequence. "The Architecture of The International" (6:13) takes a look at the various locations used in the movie, and it's also fairly engaging, and "The Autostadt" (5:04) singles out an individual building, a Volkswagen-owned theme park where no one else has shot a film. The first and third featurettes seem similar, as do the second and fourth; I feel like the former were intended to be a longer, multi-part documentary had the film been more successful at the box office (the main featurette still seems like that), while the latter might have been made for the internet.
The disc opens with trailers for The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), Fired Up! and a red-band spot for The Informers (including Amber Heard nudity!), and the special features lead to a menu that also serves up ads for 2012, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Obsessed, Waltz With Bashir, Passengers, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, 12, Sugar, "The Shield" (Seasons 1-7), The Fifth Commandment, The Art of War III, The Human Contract, The Devil's Tomb and Anacondas: Trail of Blood. For some reason, there wasn't room for The International's original theatrical trailer. Hmmm... Distractingly, the trailer for Pelham 123 almost looks better than the feature presentation.
The bonus features are subtitled in English, including the Tykwer/Singer audio commentary. The commentary subtitles are very good, too, although whoever did the subtitling thinks Syndey Pollack is a movie.
When the movie was in theaters, I only liked The International, but seeing it again on DVD, the little details I liked about in theaters had grown on me, and the video bonus features are a nice complement to the film. Ironically, the film's transfer is unable to render the film's literal little details as well as the high definition digital presentation I saw theatrically. If you have Blu-Ray, get that, but despite the image quibbles, anyone who likes Tykwer or star Clive Owen and isn't worried about a slow-boil thriller should consider the overall package recommended, if you can get it at a good price.
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