The International is the rare film that must have had 20/20 foresight. By the time the movie began shooting in September 2007, its director, Tom Tykwer, and its screenwriter, Eric Warren Singer, had targeted a global bank as the ultimate contemporary villain. Its directors hope to manipulate the world by enslaving governments to debt.
The film pivots on a rocky Middle Eastern arms deal the bank has been brokering. As Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan prosecutor Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) dig closer to the truth, they grow to understand how an organization such as the fictional International Bank of Business and Credit plays antagonists such as Israel and Syria against each other.
The political consequences of these maneuvers can be devastating, but all the IBBC cares about is increasing each player's financial liability. It doesn't want any country to go Red in a Marxist sense. (It even sets up a fall guy to be identified as a member of the Red Brigade.) It does want everyone to land in the red - financially.
Give this much credit to The International: It does know what classic movie intrigue is supposed to be all about. It leaks tantalizing bits of information about mysterious characters such as the IBBC's security chief (Armin Muehler-Stahl) and his favorite assassin (Brian F. O'Byrne) - just enough to make you want to learn more about them. Even better, these guys have a surprise or two left in them when Salinger confronts them with the truth and ties them into a pattern of corruption and amorality.
If only Salinger, Whitman and the script measured up to the dazzling panache of the settings (in Milan, Berlin and Istanbul), the deluxe yet turbid atmosphere of outrageous corporate wealth and power, and the audacious mayhem of a shootout in the Guggenheim Museum. (In a very modern-art way, director Tykwer, in that sequence, says, "Modern art - take this!")
Overall, though, the movie lacks the dash, wit, authority and character to become a first-class thinking-man's thriller. By the end, the deluxe accouterments fall away, and you're left with little more than the solid working-out of a plot. Of course, these days, it's bracing to see a suspense film take its time with complications and bring gravity to almost every death. But the movie too often plods even where it could be playful; the script doesn't give its heroes a single witty line. And sometimes, the plotting, too, appears to be perfunctory, as when Whitman simply walks a wanted man out of a police station.
Tykwer imbued his breakthrough film, Run Lola Run (1998), with the visceral power and cinematic invention of a born action filmmaker. His heart - as well as his brain - was engaged in a nonstop chase. Apart from the episode in the Guggenheim, the action in The International is distant and overcalculated. Tykwer deconstructs his most original coups. The result is simultaneously fascinating and unsatisfying.
The movie starts, for example, with an execution that Tykwer renders with flair: the shooting of a poison dart registers like an audiovisual rustle in the atmosphere. It's such a subtle, distinctive effect, you're certain Tykwer will return to it - and he does, but only for an uncharacteristic moment of cheap suspense. He's deliberately devaluing his natural gifts for kinetics and synesthesia.
When assistant district attorney Whitman gets hit by a car, the staging is so matter-of-fact it's as if Tykwer wanted to make a point about how routine collisions are hyped in other movies. Sadly, Whitman and that car make more of a dent in each other than do Owen and Watts. Salinger is an obsessed and shaggy lone wolf growing long in the tooth; Whitman is more of a team player; she's also married and a mother. It's refreshing that the moviemakers don't force a romantic connection between these two. But the usually spirited actors don't even share the rapport of the oddball man and straight-arrow woman teams that have become the center of high-end crime-solver TV shows such as The Mentalist and Lie to Me. Owen brings a whiff of demonic possession to his role. But screenwriter Singer weighs him down with gnomic utterances such as "Sometimes a man meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it."
Tykwer's eye isn't the only organ that intermittently lets him down during The International. So does his ear.
(Sony Pictures) Starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Ulrich Thomsen. Directed by Tom Tykwer. Rated R for some sequences of violence and language. Time 118 minutes.