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Your neighborhood bank may have long lines, employ irksome tellers, and consistently screw up your balance. But at least it never tries to murder you, right? Not so the IBBC, fictional financial institution and leading cause of evil in The International, the globetrotting espionage thriller starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts that emphasizes action, sacrifices story, and ensures it’ll eventually be forgotten completely.
Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer directs a debut script by Eric Warren Singer, who reportedly based his story on the real-world shenanigans of Pakistan’s now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the 1970s and ’80s. The film begins in Berlin, where Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Owen) watches his partner drop dead in the street and quickly deduces that he was killed. For unexplained reasons, Salinger pairs with New York Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Watts) to crack the case.
Utilizing the Internet, frantic text messages, and a corkboard cluttered with photos and headlines, the investigators discover a whole slew of dirty deeds involving terrorism, arms deals, and, of course, murders most foul, all brokered by the IBBC. The bank’s executives operate out of an airy, glass-paneled headquarters in Luxembourg, but even when they agree to sit down with Salinger and Whitman for a chat, they prove untouchable: “You control the debt, you control everything!” one says, unfathomably without a cackle.
Salinger and Whitman keep trying anyway, ostensibly because they’re tired of bad guys slipping through red tape but more likely because the investigation offers the fringe benefit of a pretty sweet vacation. The hunt leads either one or both of them to exotic locales like Milan and Istanbul, and the film’s most memorable scene takes place at the Guggenheim: While Salinger is trying to locate one of the bank’s hired assassins (Brian F. O’Byrne, credited only as “The Consultant”) in Manhattan, a local cop happens to spot the guy walking down the street. (Small world!) They follow him into the swirly Guggenheim, which Tykwer leaves a shell of its former self—its ivory corridors aerated with bullet holes and glass skylight shattered to bits. It’s a spectacular piece of theater but one that leaves you wondering “How did they do that?” and “Why are all these people fighting again?” rather than pulling you further into the story.
As for the former question, the sequence was filmed on an impressively realistic soundstage in Germany. Regarding the latter—well, eventually you stop caring. Owen’s and Watts’ characters don’t have much more depth than Agent With Chip on Shoulder and Hot and Dedicated DA, respectively, and by the time the film unearths its ultimate revelation that, essentially, the entire world is in on the corruption, you’d rather just enjoy the film’s scenery and shoot-’em-ups. Paying attention to the details will only remind you of better movies: A clue that involves a custom-made shoe paired with a leg brace will recall The Fugitive’s one-armed man; a villain’s exclamation that if they kill him, a hundred more will take his place brings to mind Casablanca (or, more likely, zombie flicks). The International’s lowest moment, though, seems ripped straight out of a Seinfeld episode: As Salinger and Whitman study the scene of an assassination, their analysis of angles and talk of multiple snipers is laughably reminiscent of Jerry’s “second-spitter” rebuttal to Kramer and Newman’s account of their unfortunate encounter with Keith Hernandez—itself a JFK spoof. It’s natural for a thriller to lead you down rabbit holes. But when one of these rabbit holes takes you to Kevin Costner via a sitcom, it’s time for a rewrite.