Bank baddies a timely fit in finance crisis
WITH luck rather than foresight, I suspect, emerges in this period of financial crisis as an action thriller in which a bank, based in Luxembourg, is the villain. The IBBC is into money-laundering on a grand scale, providing arms to African despots and engaging in other nefarious activities. Its headquarters, in one of those glass buildings that makes a statement, is filled with ruthless men in designer suits who sit around plotting a political assassination or an African coup in the same calm, controlled manner that other bankers ( I assume) discuss mortgages.
Interpol is on to them, however, in the shape of a doggedly determined former Scotland Yard detective, Louis Salinger ( Clive Owen). Partnered with a New York district attorney, Eleanor Whitman ( Naomi Watts), Salinger has, at the beginning of the film, a plan to obtain information from an IBBC insider who is willing to talk.
The setting for this exchange of information is Berlin, right outside the Zoo Station, but things go wrong; while Salinger watches across the street ( and Whitman waits for news in New York), the officer sent to contact the informer suddenly drops dead, jabbed in the back with a poisoned syringe by a passer-by.
This is the start of a globe-hopping thriller in which plot and characterisation are kept to a minimum. The director is the German Tom Tykwer, who came to international attention with the pulsating Run, Lola, Run ( 1998), which became an instant classic. Tykwer, one of a new generation of youngish German filmmakers making their mark on the international scene, has never managed to match this breakthrough; his previous film was the disappointing Perfume .
The International , too, can’t be called a complete success, but it’s undeniably entertaining, especially if you have a thing for men with guns dashing about the place.
The problem is that Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay doesn’t encourage much investment in the characters. Salinger and Whitman aren’t terribly interesting because we know so little about them, and it’s a particularly thankless role for Watts.
The villains fare better, as is often the case in this sort of film, especially Armin Mueller-Stahl as the only IBBC executive past the age of 40. A former citizen of East Germany and member of the communist party, Mueller-Stahl’s Wilhelm Wexler is an intriguing character and more might have been made of him. The main villain is the bank’s ruthless chief executive, Jonas Skarssen, who is played with icy detachment by Ulrich Thomsen.
But if he has trouble making his characters very interesting, Tykwer comes into his own in staging the action. Here, it’s interesting to compare his approach with that of Paul Greengrass on the last two Bourne films, which also featured chases and shoot-outs in a series of exotic, usually crowded, locations.
But whereas Greengrass favours the fauxdocumentary, queasy-cam, over-edited approach, Tykwer goes for a more classical, audience-friendly style; it’s a matter of taste, of course, but scenes in The International — such as the assassination of a politician in a crowded square in the middle of Milan, or an extended shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum in New York — are grippingly handled, even if they’re not all that convincing in hindsight.
The Guggenheim sequence, which was staged on sets built in Berlin, is typical of Tykwer’s approach: it’s a visceral, extravagant, brutal sequence in which Salinger and the IBBC assassin ( Brian F. O’Byrne) he’s come to arrest are attacked by dozens of villains wielding automatic weapons who, for more than 10 minutes, turn the famous circular gallery into a war zone.
You might wonder why the police take so long to arrive, but that’s like wondering why the Indians didn’t shoot the horses in Stagecoach ; there wouldn’t have been a movie if they did. I WAS puzzled and then, I must admit, outraged to discover that the MA15+ rating, properly given by the Office of Film and Literature Classification to The International , a very violent film, was also given to , a high-quality independent film that, because of its subject matter, will struggle to find an audience.
The MA15+ rating brings with it connotations of strong violence, which is nowhere to be found in this story of an unlikely friendship between two women; a film that is not in the least exploitative does not deserve a punitive rating on the basis of ‘‘ adult themes’’, whatever that means. Frozen River won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival just over a year ago, and its original screenplay, by first-time feature director Courtney Hunt, has been nominated for an Oscar, as has its lead actor, Melissa Leo.
To say that this is a film about the growing friendship between women from different racial, but not social, backgrounds probably makes it sound a bit sentimental, but it isn’t. These are not women who willingly display their emotions, and they collaborate out of dire necessity, not genuine friendship.
The unusual setting — communities on both sides of the St Lawrence River, which divides the US from Canada — plays a crucial role in this downbeat drama, but cinematographer Reed Morano, shooting on digital video, chooses not to beautify it. On the contrary, the grainy, occasionally shaky, camerawork will, for some, detract from the film’s overall achievement.
Leo, hitherto a fairly busy character actor, plays Ray, a white woman married to a Mohawk and mother of his two children, teenager T. J. ( Charlie McDermott) and the much younger Ricky ( James Reilly). The husband, a gambling addict, walked out on his family a few days before Christmas; he’s probably taken the bus to Atlantic City to try his luck in the casinos there.
Meanwhile Ray, whose careworn face is testament to too many cigarettes and too much disappointment, has to survive on a part-time job at a low-price supermarket; she refuses T. J.’ s pleas to let him find a job, insisting he stay in school, but the meals she and the kids eat mostly consist of popcorn and soft drink. They live in a tiny trailer dominated by a big-screen TV ( which Ricky watches obsessively) and their deposit on a larger mobile home is at risk ( as is the TV) if Ray’s debts aren’t quickly paid.
Ray meets Lila ( Misty Upham), a Mohawk estranged from her tribe, over an argument concerning Ray’s husband’s abandoned car, and this chance encounter leads to the pair taking part in the well-paid but hazardous crime of people-smuggling: at considerable risk, they drive across the frozen river into Quebec to pick up refugees, usually Chinese, who are hidden in the boot of the car as they return across the river into New York State.
On one occasion, when the illegals are a couple from Pakistan, Ray — conscious, no doubt, of the war on terror — dumps a suspicious-looking backpack in the snow, with near-disastrous results.
The film’s strength lies in the utter realism and the lack of sentimentality with which the characters and situations are presented, but it runs the risk of being so uncompromising that potential audiences will avoid it, which would be a pity.
In this respect, absolutely no help.
the OFLC has
Doggedly determined: Clive Owen plays Interpol hero Louis Salinger in The International
Utter realism: Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in a scene from Frozen River