The International follows in the great tradition of timely thrillers that work, in part, because you fear they might be prescient. The subject matter is world banking which, on the surface, sounds kind of dull and esoteric. But when you discover that the bank in question is financing terror and acts of war - all for the purposes of obtaining power - it's hard not to feel a little shiver working its way up your spine. A friend messages me on Facebook to say that he's heard the bank in the movie is based on a very real bank with some very real allegations looming over it. The shivers begin again.
Clive Owen plays Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent investigating the International Bank for Business and Credit (IBBC) with the help of Manhattan District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts). They have recently discovered that the bank has purchased a large supply of missile guidance systems and, knowing full well that such an institution has no obvious need for anything of that sort, believe they may have found the smoking gun.
The difficult part is assembling enough hard evidence to prove that the IBBC is engaged in illegal activities, especially since an assassin known as "the Consultant" (Brian O'Byrne) has been hired to take out anybody who cooperates with the investigation. Trotting across the globe from Berlin to Istanbul and places in between, Salinger and Whitman track down leads before eventually coming face to face with one of the key players in the bank's illicit transactions. His name is Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and he potentially holds all the answers they seek.
I've pared down the plot to its most basic elements, but you should know that the movie is considerably more complex than I have made it seem. (Don't get up to go to the bathroom or you'll get lost!) Sometimes I find these types of thrillers confusing; the characters bounce from place to place, bandy names around like tennis balls, and give long-winded, hard-to-follow monologues that "explain" everything. By its very nature, the genre of the international (no pun intended) political thriller is a little maddening. Happily, The International is quite follow-able, provided you remain engaged with it. Screenwriter Eric Warren Singer and director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have done a nice job of making a complicated story accessible.
There's an interesting line of dialogue that sums up the film's theme quite well: "Whoever controls the debt, controls the power." In other words, an institution like the IBBC could, in essence, affect the world's balance of power by bankrupting some nations and providing windfalls to others. It could broker deals to put arms into the hands of countries that will use them in a particularly advantageous way. Similarly, it could also provide other countries with defense systems that might otherwise be unavailable to them. Given our current economic climate, not to mention the criticism that's accompanied the Savings & Loans bailout, any movie that addresses the abuses of the banking industry is automatically going to hit a nerve, which this one certainly does.
Any good thriller requires not only a brain - which The International certainly has, given the topics it addresses - but also a pulse. While the picture doesn't have as much action as, say, one of the Bourne movies, the scenes it does have are first rate. Without a doubt, the centerpiece is an extended shootout at the Guggenheim Museum. Salinger follows the assassin there in search of a clue, gets the tables turned on him, then discovers that a horde of armed field soldiers are after both him and the Consultant. On-screen shootouts have become so common that they are often boring and unoriginal; here is one of the best, most exciting to come along in a great while.
Clive Owen and Naomi Watts are great choices for the lead roles. Owen always gives off a tough, charismatic vibe, yet he's also brainier than your garden-variety action hero. Watts, the best working actress today in my opinion, is a performer of great economy, able to convey vast emotions with just a slight change of expression or a simple gesture. I believed these actors as, respectively, an Interpol agent and a D.A. Both exude intelligence and likeability, so it becomes very easy to get invested in what their characters are trying to accomplish. There is good supporting work from Mueller-Stahl, O'Byrne, and Ulrich Thompson, who plays the mastermind of the IBBC scheme.
I think The International is very good, but it could have been even better had it polished its ending a little more. In the final 20 minutes, the film scrambles to explain so much so quickly that you can feel shortcuts being taken. Part of the big finale also borrows liberally from the wrap-up in Orson Welles' great Touch of Evil, as Salinger tries to listen in on a bugged conversation while the participants walk out of range, causing his connection to become staticky. (In fairness, the homage works.) While it may not go down as a classic, The International is still an effective thriller for our time. Unlike many recent thrillers, it's not disposable. Days after seeing it, the film is still on my mind.
( out of four)
The International is rated R for some sequences of violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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