Bank bad­dies a timely fit in fi­nance cri­sis

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

been

of

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

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