Is there common ground between James Bond and the Wall Street Journal? To put it another way: Can you make a credible and intriguing movie with complex multinational banking deals undertaking the role of villain, yet somehow have it all boil down to one guy with a gun chasing another guy across a rooftop? The answer is: yes and no. The International is hardly credible but it is intriguing, thanks to the furious concentration with which it is directed by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, who also presided over the somewhat overly sweaty Run Lola Run and the mesmerizing erotic fable Perfume.
Clive Owen, one of the most fully committed actors working today, is another reason the film manages to seize your full attention for two entertaining hours, even if you depart with a shrug and a scratch of the head. Owen plays a bedraggled Interpol agent, Louis Salinger, who has been kicked out of Scotland Yard while pursuing the activities of the International Bank of Business and Credit, which is involved in buying arms and selling them to African strongmen.
Salinger’s counterpart in New York City, an assistant district attorney (Naomi Watts), joins him in his righteous zeal to unravel the mysteries of the bank but there are no sparks between the two, no snappy give-and-take, and not even much of a friendship. Watts’ character is in it strictly to play the sidekick. She could be a guy and it would make absolutely no difference. She doesn’t really need to be here at all. She does, however, keep alive her amazing crying streak in virtually every role. The woman could do Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and find a reason to bawl.
If ever there was a time to release a movie about a nefarious bank, it’s now. And yet the movie barely lays a finger on the financial industry. Even if you assume that banks do wield the levers of power, that their mission is — as the movie puts it — to get us “addicted to debt,” and that they purposely foment civil wars in Africa to advance their own interests, that’s still no excuse for banks to shoot high officials in public or send a dozen men armed with machine guns to destroy the interior of a famous building in front of hundreds of witnesses. That’s the whole point of an evil institution. It doesn’t have to get its hands dirty. Who needs assassins when you’ve got lobbyists?
Without shootouts and villains, though, you can’t have a thriller, and it isn’t often a movie turns geopolitics into an absorbing adult adventure. The International operates on a higher level than most movies simply because it functions in a world that vaguely resembles our own, instead of relying on the ridiculously fanciful twists of last year’s abrasively idiotic Vantage Point. (This season’s Euro-thriller Taken made Vantage Point look like North by Northwest.) The trail of deception, vengeance, and murder, along with the cyclone of chaos that emanates from the most placid surroundings in The International‘s central scene, is carefully calibrated. However the final act doesn’t stir much interest. We’ve long since learned that the bank is so sinister that its depravity will continue regardless. Yet a one-on-one chase is exactly what the film expects us to fall for. It also wants us to accept some questionable philosophizing.
Nonetheless, Tykwer’s muscular craftsmanship is enough to carry the film. The International can’t compete with the great 70s thrillers it attempts to emulate, but it’s a dogged and sober work — far more enticing than the usual grab bag of stunts in other films of the same genre.
Directed by Tom Tykwer
Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl
3 stars/ 4
120 minutes/Rated R