February 11, 2009

We have seen the future in Clive Owen’s face, and that future is bleak. The now-46-year-old English actor starred in one of the best films of 2006 (or of any year), Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian Children of Men, where his job was to safeguard the future of humanity. The present is likewise grim for Owen’s categorically violent characters in Frank Miller’s Sin City, Spike Lee’s Inside Man, the Driver series, and Will Graham’s British crime pic I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, as well as in Jack Manfred’s sour Croupier, Owen’s breakthrough role. It’s difficult to imagine him in a romantic comedy.

First-time actress Pham Thi Han portrays a beguiling mixture of toughness and vulnerability.

The International
Directed by Tom Tykwer. With Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, and Brian F. O’Byrne. Opens Friday.

Owl and the Sparrow
Written and directed by Stephane Gauger. With Pham Thi Han, Cat Ly, and Le Thu Lu. Opens Friday.

It has to do with his physical presence. The strength and resolve of Owen’s typical characters show through, but they always take a back seat to his essential bone-weariness. His is not a “hang-dog” expression, it’s “hang it all.” Owen’s big-screen masculinity is of the scruffy, anti-James-Bondian variety, which is why, with all due respect to Daniel Craig, Clive Owen should be the current James Bond for these post-martini times, disillusioned and case-hardened and in need of some sleep he’s never going to get. Punctuate it with a cigarette and a two-day beard, and we’ve got the basic Owen protagonist.

The International begins with a medium close-up of Owen standing outside the Berlin central train station, looking like a drowned rat. It grows nastier by leaps and bounds for Louis Salinger (Owen) as the increasingly familiar story unfolds. If only director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run; Heaven; Perfume) and writer Eric Singer had cooked up something a bit fresher than the old “malevolent clandestine superpower bent on taking over the world” scenario, à la Syriana, Traffic, or Goldfinger.

The laconic Salinger is an Interpol agent investigating major corporate skullduggery. IBBC, aka the International Bank of Business and Commerce, appears to be involved with assassinations, arms trading, intelligence gathering, destabilizing governments, and ultra-violent cover-ups of same from its fortress-like stronghold in Luxembourg, where sinister men in suits glower over computer screens and dispatch killers all over the globe. This bank has more armed goons than ATMs — don’t even think about complaining about a service charge.

There’s no Ernst Stavro Blofeld behind IBBC, just a pasty-faced, shaven-headed CEO named Skarssen (Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen). Skarssen eschews fluffy white kittens — he lives quietly with his family. His Hitler-Youth kids help him make his cold-blooded decisions. Among his witticisms: “The true value of a conflict is the debt it produces.” ICCB is evidently modeled on BCCI, a similarly naughty real-life leviathan bank of the ’80s and ’90s — but verisimilitude alone cannot save this film.

The MacGuffin of the piece, the “Vulcan Guidance System,” has to do with an Italian family of arms manufacturers named Calvini, which gives the producers the chance to shoot spiffy second-unit stuff in Milan — also in Istanbul, the environs of Berlin, and New York City — while Salinger and his adversaries tussle over the dingus. And of course there’s an indecipherable old man, played by veteran I.O.M. Armin Mueller-Stahl, who holds all the secrets in his head. Just to round things out and provide The International with the whisper of a potential love interest, a New York assistant DA (huh?) named Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) pops up from time to time in various bits of business. But she’s strictly an afterthought.

As previously demonstrated, Owen can take a punch. The movie’s centerpiece, really the only reason to sit through it, occurs when Salinger goes into the Guggenheim Museum in New York on the trail of “Sherwood” (Brian F. O’Byrne), ICCB’s number one assassin. All of a sudden, a small army of hit men open fire on the Interpol man and his NYPD pal (Jack McGee) and turn the majestic Guggenheim atrium, with its curved 20th-century-modern ramp, into a Wild West shooting gallery. It’s the most spectacular “destruction” of a New York cultural landmark since Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin made their bones with a dinosaur at the American Museum of Natural History in On the Town. (Tykwer’s bullet storm was reportedly shot on a specially built set in Germany to stand in for the Guggenheim.)

One wonders how a filmmaker like the talented Tykwer, who has delved deeply into philosophical drama in such films as Heaven, The Princess and the Warrior, and Winter Sleepers — not to mention the techno-fueled destiny-mobile Run, Lola, Run — got saddled with a meat-and-potatoes screenplay so atypical of him. Take away the Guggenheim shootout and we’ve at least got Clive Owen at half throttle. Take away Owen and there’s nothing left but the tired old mystic cabal of sadistic sorcerers. Maybe the US government could send bailout money to this movie. Put me down for a dime.

Things aren’t nearly so frantic in Vietnam, scene of filmmaker Stephane Gauger’s charming little fable, Owl and the Sparrow — although cash and the lack of it once again drive the plot. But where the money trail in The International leads to clichés, the low-key exploits of a little girl named Thuy are arguably as unpredictable as a thunderstorm in the South China Sea.

Ten-year-old orphan Thuy — played with a beguiling mixture of toughness and vulnerability by first-timer Pham Thi Han — runs away from the factory where her “uncle” exploits her and other child laborers, and heads for nearby Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City, although no one there bothers with that name), where she joins the multitude of homeless kids selling flowers and trinkets on the street. Running parallel to her story are the lonely lives of Lan, a pretty flight attendant living in an HCMC hotel (Cat Ly) and Hai (Le The Lu), a gentle young man tending the animals at the city zoo. Fate intends these three to come together, and director Gauger sees to it with a light, wistful touch plus a maximum of Vietnamese local color.

Films from and/or about Vietnam on American screens are rare as phoenix tails. American-made Owl and the Sparrow, exec-produced by Timothy Linh Bui (Three Seasons) and Ham Tran (Journey from the Fall), takes full advantage of director Gauger’s Viet-American point of view (half Vietnamese, Gauger was born in Saigon) and his apparent dedication to telling true-to-life stories of ordinary Vietnamese. Owl and the Sparrow opens Friday at the Sundance Kabuki as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s “SFFS Screen” series. It’s worth the trip across the bay.