You gotta hand it to Hollywood: They sure know how to capitalize on the public's anxiety. Serial killers and scarf-wearing terrorists are now officially passé. It's time to focus on the truly evil villains of our time: bankers.
In the tradition of '70s paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume) brings us the well-crafted but relentlessly grim The International. It's the kind of globetrotting suspense film where every country is gray, every character is tense, every building is an ominous architectural marvel and shadowy forces lurk behind every frame of the film.
Clive Owen is clenched-jawed INTERPOL agent Louis Salinger, who permanently sports a two-day beard and a serious hard-on to bring down BCCI, a Luxembourg bank involved in all sorts of nefarious shenanigans. You see, banking is a lot more than just overdraft fees and free iPod shuffles. Controlling the destabilization of countries can send profit shares soaring — arms can be sold, money can be laundered, and debt can be manipulated. You think John Thain of Merrill Lynch was evil? At least he didn't arrange for the assassination of a political leader.
Teamed with New York D.A. Eleanor Whitman (a completely wasted Naomi Watts), and enraged by a string of suspicious deaths, Salinger is determined to bring these fiendish financiers to justice. He skips from Berlin to Lyon to Milan to New York to Istanbul, doggedly trying to derail their scheme, all while the audience gets more and more confused and creeped-out.
Tykwer is very good at tightening the screws, delivering a suspenseful and moody addition to the man-versus-the-system conspiracy genre. He makes incredible use of his locations, including guerrilla-style scenes in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar and the Suleymaniye Mosque. The highlight is an astonishing 15-minute shootout in New York's iconic Guggenheim Museum, where the body count rises as the building is reduced to wreckage. It's the kind of bravura filmmaking that'd make Brian DePalma envious.
Unfortunately, Eric Warren Singer's script never provides Owen's character with complexity or personal stakes. His rumpled antiestablishment hero is indomitable but uninteresting, aided only by the actor's formidable charisma. There's also no style or rhythm to Singer's dialogue and his plotting feels more frantic than dramatic. As a result, The International is cold and mechanical, running out of gas in its final act, and never delivering the unnerving coup de grace that its more successful peers have achieved.
Based on the very real Bank of Credit and Commercial International, a Pakistani institution that specialized in criminal money laundering between the 1970s and 1990s, The International fails to find enough up-to-the-minute metaphors. While the parallels between its narrative conceits and our current global recession — odious bankers and corrupt financial organizations — give it an appeal it probably wouldn't have had a few years ago, the focus on rebel armies and arms deals is too distant and impersonal. Had the filmmakers brought things closer to home, implicating Wall Street and Congress in the darker underpinnings of the plot, The International would feel more urgent than simply timely.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.