Thursday, February 19, 2009

A tale of two political thrillers

Directed by Pierre Morel
Starring Liam Neeson
91 minutes

The International
Directed by Tom Tikwer
Starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts
118 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

AFTER SEEING the Republican Party get decisively rejected at the polls, a group of conservatives launched a movie review Web site, Big Hollywood, to much right-wing fanfare, including announcements by Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Times.

Big Hollywood seeks legitimacy for conservative cultural criticism by printing not only movie reviews but articles by mainstream Republican politicians. Nonetheless, there is plenty of reactionary filth to go around, with this group's film criticism attempting to do what eight years of conservative ideology did for Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. economy.

The latest cause célèbre on the site is the action film Taken, starring Liam Neeson as an ex-CIA agent out to rescue his daughter from a sex slavery ring. Right-wing film critic Debbie Schlussel, lamenting what she sees as a lack of Muslim bad guys in today's movies, describes the film this way on the Big Hollywood site:

In Taken, retired CIA agent Liam Neeson's daughter is kidnapped by an Albanian Muslim sex slavery ring in Paris. And while the movie doesn't outright tell us they are Muslims, the filmmakers show us several quick close-up shots of tattoos on the hands of the men who head the ring--crescents and stars, the religious symbols of Islam.

Then, there are the people who "acquire" his daughter. They are obviously Arabs, who speak Arabic, and they are Muslims--their boss is "the Sheikh" on the yacht (Sheikhs are exclusively Muslim). And for once, they are the criminal thugs, the sex slavers, the murderers--without apology or excuse.

Just the way it was on 9/11.

It's partly for this reason that I liked Taken immensely.

In another review that Schlussel links to in this post, she explains further:

One of them is purchasing the women as concubines for his boss, a big, fat, ugly Arab Muslim Sheikh on a yacht...There is a great scene where all of these evil Arabic-speaking scumbags get sent to a permanent conference call with the 72 virgins. That is the kind of stuff people went to movies to see, and they don't get to see it much at all anymore.

Who needs Hollywood's vilification of Muslims when you have Debbie Schlussel?

Big Hollywood's editor-in-chief John Nolte agrees with Schlussel, and in a review of The International--a political thriller about an international bank and its criminal practices--he recommends that readers go see Taken instead.

I don't think that a film is simply made or broken as a piece of entertainment based on whether it chooses the right "bad guys," but unsurprisingly, in this case, Big Hollywood has it precisely backward.

Schlussel says that she liked Taken so much because, for her, it had the right bad guys. But this is actually part of the problem--Taken is all too simplistic and predictable. After some well-executed action scenes and some clever maneuvers by Neeson's character, it descends into a standard revenge flick, where no problem can't be overcome with a bit more senseless violence.

Whatever gratification Nolte and Schlussel get in seeing "their" bad guys portrayed, it's hard to deny that the movie relies on simplistic ethnic and cinematic stereotypes. The bad guys are at various times ugly, dirty, unshaven and fat, either living in immigrant slums or basking in gluttony. Even if making Albanians the bad guys is a trivially unique twist, the fear of dark-skinned people raping "our" virginal daughters is as old as American slavery.

This is simplistic crowd-pleasing fare that expects little from its audience other than hating what is all too easy for many viewers to hate. In spite of some decent suspense early on, Taken suffers from having little originality and few surprises.

After the Bourne series, Casino Royale, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight, we have come to expect much more subtlety and complexity from an action movie.

The weaknesses of Taken do not rest solely in its selection of bad guys--although that aspect is certainly vile. Taken relies on the same sort of simplistic worldview that endorses smears and fear-mongering in American elections and sees any attempt to understand the Muslim world--or even attempt to point out that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists--as a weak-kneed liberal appeasement that only makes America less safe from its enemies.

It should not be terribly surprising, then, that Taken finds no humanity in the Arabs and Muslims in the film, but plenty in the white CIA agents who brag about their exploits in the Middle East.

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THE INTERNATIONAL, on the other hand, doesn't rely on crude stereotypes and base fears but a complex plot--which even threatens to leave some viewers behind--that not only delivers suspenseful action but creates paranoia based on the inability of the lead character to challenge the entire economic and political system.

The film starts out as an investigation that opens up several levels of corruption in the fictional International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC), including the bank's funding of both sides of various rivalries because, we learn, the real spoils of war are not in who wins but who controls the debt.

The IBBC also has links with the Italian government and is involved in an assassination covered up by the Carabinieri--the Italian internal security force--who attempt to frame the left-wing Red Brigade.

The details of the investigation are meticulous but fascinating. The film doesn't worry about spelling out every twist and turn--most viewers will likely know nothing of the Carabinieri and Red Brigade, for example--but these provide a rich background to the story and there is plenty to engage most viewers.

The "bad guys" at the IBBC aren't ugly or dirty--rather, they are good-looking, well-educated and powerful. In another film, these same characters could have been heroes that we sympathized with. But this is what makes the story so much more insidious--they live happy lives as public figures with nice houses and attractive families, and yet find it within themselves to commit great crimes in order to protect their privilege.

The most wickedly evil moment in either film does not come out of the barrel of a gun but from a throwaway exchange of dialogue between the head of the IBBC and his pre-teen son. Two lines of dialogue between the two which are completely abstracted from crime and corruption chillingly suggest the criminality lingering beneath their ordinary lives and how the boy is being innocently trained to follow his father's path.

There are several moments like this that not only satisfied my left-wing sensibilities but created a rich texture for the world that the film occupies--which is, of course, a reflection of our own world.

While the action is choreographed with great suspense, Clive Owen as a burned-out Interpol agent finds that violence will only get him so far. Kill one banker and another will step in to take his place. The system is stacked in the bank's favor and in order to really challenge the bank you have to go outside of the system. This leads to an ending that is far more interesting than the all-too-neat package presented at the end of Taken.

In reality, many of the characters in The International would just as likely be complicit with government and corporate corruption as they would investigate it and the movie is no masterpiece by any means. Naomi Watts is fairly wooden as a Manhattan District Attorney and the films starts to run out of steam toward the end. But there is a great story in Owen's agent who can't stand to lose another case but slowly realizes that there may be no way he can win. This is so much more satisfying than Neeson's neocon-like self-assuredness that there is no way he can fail in his mission.

Originally published at

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