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Review: The International

Bank failure
By PETER KEOUGH  |  February 10, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for The International

The International | Directed by Tom Tykwer | Written by Eric Warren Singer | With Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Brían F. O’Byrne | Columbia Pictures | 116 minutes
Forget the bailouts — here's what we should do. Get a relentless and unkempt Interpol agent named Louis Salinger (Clive Owen, looking as if he'd he just stepped out of Children of Men), give him a gun, and have him chase the CEOs of Lehman Brothers, AIG, Bank of America, and the rest across the rooftops of Istanbul muttering, "I want justice."

In the meantime, we have Tom Tykwer's movie The International, a so-so conspiracy thriller with few thrills and no surprises that settles somewhere between the shrewdness of Michael Clayton and the incoherency of Quantum of Solace. The title refers not to the rallying anthem of the Communist Party (though a relic of the old regime in the form of Armin Mueller-Stahl does make an appearance) but to the International Bank of Business and Credit (an allusion to the Bank of Credit & Commerce International IBBC, which crashed in 1991).

The IBBC doesn't invest in bad housing loans, like today's buccaneers. Rather — as we learn from one of the film's several expository/philosophical, pace-destroying chats — it arms African revolutions and sells missiles to Iran and profits from the debt and the chaos that ensue. Along the way, it has to bring in "The Consultant" (a Lee Harvey Oswald–looking Brían O'Byrne) to eliminate the occasional turncoat or overly inquisitive investigator. But when the Consultant starts bumping off Salinger's friends and colleagues, the hot-headed vindicator makes it personal.

That, however, is as personal as the movie gets. Salinger teams up with Manhattan assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts in another platonic co-starring role à la Eastern Promises), whose personal life is condensed into one scene in which her house-husband mate puts their little boy to bed while she stays up late at the laptop. Salinger is too busy to shave or launder his Columbo-style raincoat, let alone socialize. Will sparks fly? Not a chance; their relationship is strictly professional. And not very successful in that regard, either, as bureaucratic corruption, indifference, and red tape undermine their increasingly tedious efforts.

As the investigation bogs down, so does the narrative. Tykwer made his reputation with the frenetic Run LolaRun; since then he seems to have been trying to slow down with films like Heaven, Perfume, and this one. In lieu of action, character development, or plot, The International offers architecture. Lots of it, brutal, humanity-dwarfing, glass-wedged monsters in Berlin, Milan, New York, and Lyon. (I can't think of any film as architecturally obsessed except maybe Orson Welles's The Trial.) The only truly exciting sequence is a shoot-out in that architectural icon the Guggenheim Museum (or a convincing mock-up).

I imagine the filmmakers chose this static medium as their guiding motif for a purpose. As in so many of the movies made recently about faceless worldwide conspiracies challenged by undaunted individuals, the message here seems to be that resistance is futile. We may not be tilting at windmills, but we are banging our heads against the glass walls of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Things pick up a bit when the film takes in the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, but as far as stimulus packages go, The International fizzles.

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