Apart from Americas repo men, probably the only people popping champagne corks over last falls financial meltdown were the producers of The International. Doubtless the filmmakers wondered whether Clive Owen and Naomi Watts were big enough names to open their fair-to-middlin espionage-type thriller about a nefarious global bank.
Then the markets crashed and megabanks hit up the U.S. tax payers for bailout money, without curtailing their corporate fat-cat ways. With financial institutions emerging as the zeitgeists villains of the moment, The International's follow-the-money suspense plot seems almost psychic. Its like the way the Three Mile Island nuclear accident happened 12 days after the release of The China Syndrome: You cant buy that kind of publicity.
Owen plays British Interpol agent Louis Salinger, who works with Eleanor Whitman (Watts) of the New York District Attorneys office to make a case against the International Bank of Business and Credit, or IBBC. (Screenwriter Eric Singer fictionalizes the corrupt, real life Bank of Credit and Commerce International.) For years Salinger has been obsessed with bringing down the IBBC, but every potentially cooperative witness, from Berlin to Lyon to Rome, turns up dead.
Chief among the IBBCs misdeeds is a scheme to broker some missile guidance systems and foment military unrest in the third world. In Italy, a well-connected expert walks the heroes (and the audience) through the banks involvement in international arms not to control the conflict, but to control the debt the conflict produces. The films money quote, that the banking system intends to make us all slaves to debt, echoes the themes of documentaries like I.O.U.S.A., and serves up red meat to anyone who carries a credit card balance.
Despite pressing plenty of hot-button issues, The International still needs to balance the action movie column of the cinematic ledger. Run Lola Run director Tom Twyker proves technically proficient without resorting to stylistic overkill. The intriguing opening sequence features an assassination in plain sight. In a clever, potentially unfair touch, a New York surveillance scene just happens to wind past the branches of some of Americas biggest banks the implied guilt-by-association impossible to ignore.
The International clearly wants to broker a merger between the globe-trotting momentum of the Bourne movies and Michael Claytons character-driven insights into how corporate skullduggery really works. Unfortunately, its hard to sort out the important villains from the mere white-collar henchmen. Bad guys include a sinister Teutonic consultant (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a nondescript hit man, and the IBBCs immoral but deceptively ordinary CEO (Ulrich Thomsen). The plot advances either too modestly the IBBC CEO reschedules his meeting with Salinger! The cad! or too loud, particularly at the preposterous, climactic fire-fight at a New York landmark.
With his stubble and steely gaze, Owens magnetism can elevate the high-strung hero clichés of any movie. Its a shame that the script gives so little substance to his and Watts characters, and makes their moments of high-tech sleuthing sound like outtakes from CSI. Salingers recurring bouts of tinnitus seem to echo his plagued conscience, but the idea doesnt really pan out. When Salinger sticks his head in the sink with hopes of shaking a clue from his memory, it only evokes an identical shot in Huey Lewis I Want a New Drug video.
The International seems like a perfectly adequate film to catch on disc: Alas, the current financial crisis probably won't correct itself by the DVD release. Its the kind of thriller that undermines its slickness and verisimilitude with bursts of blatant silliness. You find yourself wondering whether every Fortune 500 company has its own death squad. Are hired killers on retainer? How are they listed in the annual report? Do Atlanta corporations like Coca-Cola or Home Depot have their own hit men? And, as a career-track, is being a corporate assassin recession-proof?
The International 2 stars Directed by Tom Tykwer. Stars Clive Owen, Naomi Watts. Rated R. Opens Fri., Feb. 13. At area theaters.
(Photo by Jay Maidment)
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