"The International," short for the fictional International Bank of Business and Credit, may be the first movie named after a financial institution since 1934's "House of Rothschild." That such a film should come out now is simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate.
With banks and banking on everyone's mind, it could be a great thing to have a film in which just such an institution is portrayed as malevolence personified, an all-powerful, all-knowing organization that's got everything wired for evildoers all over the world.
On the other hand, banks have been revealed to be so inept, so incapable of managing their own finances, let alone the world's, that having them as villains at this point in time is rather like expecting Superman to be your hero and having Clark Kent show up instead.
It doesn't help matters that, despite glamorous stars like Clive Owen and Naomi Watts and a high-profile director like "Run Lola Run's" Tom Tykwer, "The International" is never more than an adequate thriller. It's got some effective moments and aspects, but the film goes in and out of plausibility, and its elements never manage to unify into a coherent whole.
"The International" opens with Owen staring intently at the camera. One look at his character, Interpol agent Louis Salinger, lets us know that this is one heck of an angry man, someone whose blood is at a perpetual boil. Just weeks after Liam Neeson pulled a similar stunt in "Taken," we've got another born-in-Britain individual fully capable of taking on the worst of the world. Must be something in the water.
But while Neeson's character worked alone, Eric Warren Singer's script gives Salinger a partner, albeit an unlikely one. That would be svelte blond Eleanor Whitman (Watts), a Manhattan assistant district attorney who is partnering with Interpol for reasons that never feel exactly clear.
If you are expecting romantic sparks to fly between these two, you will be disappointed; Whitman is a happily married mother whose tolerant hunk of a husband is content to have her work crazy hours and hop a plane at a moment's notice. And if you're expecting some insight into banking, except for a brief exchange about the International's belief that "if you control the debt, you control everything," you don't get that either.
Instead the bank soon becomes the equivalent of SMERSH or Quantum -- one of those vague, super-secret evil empires James Bond is always nattering on about. Not that that deters our two protagonists, determined as they are to explore scenic locations like Milan and Berlin, to find out what kind of nefarious scheme has got the bank wanting to buy millions of missile guidance systems.
Shot by Tykwer's usual cinematographer Frank Griebe, "The International" exhibits noticeable visual style as it gallivants around the world (Istanbul, Italy's Lake Garda, to name a few locales), and it also has some solid action sequences.
Biggest of these is a huge shootout at New York's Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum, re-created at no small expense at an abandoned railway roundhouse in Berlin. The set took 16 weeks to build and was used for six weeks of shooting. There's no official record of the number of bullets fired, but it must have been considerable.
In between the shooting, there's a concerted effort to make the film's characters realistic, to add depth to the action, but except for Armin Mueller-Stahl's evil henchman, this doesn't happen. Emotional relevance has trouble coexisting with boilerplate lines like "Would the Turk really play such a dangerous game?" and "He could be the bombshell we've spent the past two years looking for."
'Bourne' to be wild
Despite being structured in an intriguing way -- bits of confusing action are shown first and explained later -- "The International" never finds its footing. Like it or not, films like this have to live in a post-"Bourne Identity" world, and since that film and its successors raised the bar for this kind of genre entertainment, there is no going back.
It's perhaps another sign of the times that while the Guggenheim had no qualms at all about its building being used as the setting for a graphic and bloody shootout with a high body count, it was awfully fussy about what people might think of the art shown on its walls. One of the last on-screen credits reads, "The fictional exhibition depicted in the main galleries of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was not curated by nor an actual exhibition of the Museum."
It's nice to see an institution that's got its priorities straight.
MPAA rating: R for some sequences of violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In general release