While prescient, or just lucky, to have made bankers its bad guys, “The International” is a mostly ho-hum globe-hopping thriller that gives the audience too little investment in its protagonists and central conflict. Graced with well-chosen location eye candy, Tom Tykwer’s biggest production to date is proficient but lacks the added tension and characterization to put it anywhere near the top tier of contempo action suspensers. With its very Euro feel, this Sony release probably will perform better overseas than Stateside, where outlook is just OK. Pic kicked off the Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 5.
Eleven years after raising the bar for arresting, hyperkinetic commercial filmmaking with “Run Lola Run,” Tykwer has found himself bettered at his own game by the likes of Paul Greengrass, Danny Boyle, Doug Liman and Martin Campbell, among others. “The International” scampers all over the place, but it’s alternately frantic and a little slack, with a hole in the middle where some interesting characters ought to be.
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First-time screenwriter Eric Warren Singer based his script on the Bank of Credit and Commercial Intl., a Pakistan-born institution that specialized in money laundering, arms dealing and financing rebel armies, mercenaries and terrorists from the 1970s until its demise in 1991.
The fictional bank in question here, the IBBC, has a formidable, ultra-sleek HQ in Luxembourg and seems to function equally as an assassination bureau and a broker for weapons sales among unsavory parties. Having witnessed a colleague drop dead in Berlin after nearly uncorking a deal for a sophisticated missile guidance system between the Chinese and some undesirables, it falls to sweaty, grubby, pushy Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), formerly of Scotland Yard, to finger the bad boys, who are all well-groomed, overly serious Euros expert at hard stares and putting on airs of steely superiority.
For reasons glided over too quickly to sink in, Salinger is paired with New York Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) to pursue their suspicions. European officials suddenly become extremely uncooperative when they find out who the pair is investigating, even after another high-profile murder and a political assassination in Milan bear the IBBC signature.
Nearly an hour in, the action shifts to New York City for the sole purpose of staging the film’s major violent setpiece on the curving ramps of the Guggenheim Museum. After a wildly coincidental chance sighting of the assassin, cutely known only as the Consultant (Brian F. O’Byrne), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Upper East Side masterpiece is turned into a war zone as it gets shot to pieces by philistines wielding very heavy artillery. Taking performance art to new levels of mayhem, Tykwer moves his shooters amid ever-changing wall video installations as they maneuver up, down and around the gallery and leave a terrible case of pock marks in their wake.
As orchestrated chaos ensues for 14 minutes, you mostly wonder how the sequence was filmed, if a combination of the real place and sets was used and why the Guggenheim would have allowed it. The answer is that, except for some establishing shots, the sequence was entirely staged on a massive, utterly credible re-creation in an old railway roundhouse in Berlin.
The fact that one sits there contemplating logistics more than story suggests something’s missing. Owen’s Salinger is clearly designed to be the counterhero, a scruffy, stubbly, ornery maverick who’s let the rest of his life slide, in his often bumpy pursuit of justice. The basic notion behind the character is fine, but insufficient psychological detail is provided to back up the exterior sketch; one need only compare him to a similarly driven and prickly detective, such as Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection,” to be aware of the depth that’s wanting here.
Salinger’s spirited tag-along crimefighter Whitman is one of the few roles to which Watts hasn’t been able to bring anything special, because there’s nothing remotely suggested about her inner-life or past. By contrast, Armin Mueller-Stahl’s titan of corruption at the center of IBBC has been loaded with a ripe former career to help explain his malfeasance, just the latest example of how much more interesting it can be to play complicated bad guys rather than one-dimensional good ones.
Scripter Singer latched onto a good subject for a thriller but paid more attention to connecting the dramatic dots than to delving beneath the surface of international business or personality. Dialogue is generally mundane with functional intent.
Textured lensing by Tykwer regular Frank Griebe captures the visual qualities of the diverse locations, which also include Lyon and, in the scenic finale, Istanbul, where effective use is made of rooftop vistas as well as the Suleymaniye Mosque and an underground Byzantine cistern. Other production values are fine, and the score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil throbs in relatively discreet fashion.