Clive Owen as Louis Salinger and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Wilhelm Wexler in Columbia Pictures’ thriller “The International.”
The only thing worse than a bad movie is a mediocre movie that could have been much better.
“The International” seems to aspire to be both a taut action-thriller as well as an indictment of the unchecked greed of power hungry international bankers.
The film follows rogue Interpol agent Louis Salinger, played by Clive Owen, and Manhattan assistant district attorney Eleanor Whitman, portrayed by Naomi Watts, as they attempt to unravel the devious intrigues of the International Bank of Business and Credit, one of the world’s most powerful banking institutions.
Directed by Tom Tykwer, the completed film developed a split personality somewhere along the line: the more cerebral, cloak-and-dagger tale of miserly powerbrokers conspiring to control both individual and national debts is stifled by ham-fisted attempts at Hollywood style action sequences and sluggish procedural segments.
Released during a period of global economic chaos and on the heels of the Bernie Madoff revelations, the premise is certainly promising. Had Tykwer chosen to make “The International” a serious drama, he could have crafted a compelling film dredging up the dirty little secrets of megalomaniacal corporations and pitiless financiers looking to turn a profit on the blood, sweat and tears of commoners around the world. There are references to such lofty idealism scattered in bits of dialogue throughout the movie, as characters accuse international banks of enslaving people and governments alike by ensuring perpetual debt.
Of course, escapism sells better than idealism. That’s probably why Tykwer decided to punctuate the film with cold-blooded assassinations, grumpy law enforcement officials and an old-fashioned shoot-out. This might have worked, too, had both the filmmakers and the actors managed to construct palpable anxiety and paranoia.
Sadly, trailers for the film contained more suspense than the film itself. Watching “The International,” one wonders what a genius like Alfred Hitchcock would have done differently. As Salinger, Owen never manages to convince the audience he perceives the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself. Likewise, Watts fails to exhibit the zeal compelling Whitman to maintain her allegiance to Salinger even though she realizes she is putting her family in danger.
Every now and then, “The International” transcends its own mediocrity. In a scene where Salinger visits the corporate offices of the IBBC in Luxembourg, Tykwer manages to achieve, albeit fleetingly, that element of obsessive mistrust and dread as the antihero descends into the conspiratorial underworld. Likewise, the closed-door interrogation of aging former communist Wilhelm Wexler, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who works as an intelligence officer for the IBBC offers an unambiguous denunciation of unchecked avarice.
The shoot-out that pretty much destroys the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (don’t worry, it was a life-size replica built especially for the film) and serves as the film’s centerpiece is luscious eye-candy, too.
Outside of a few masterfully executed scenes, there’s no crackle, no sizzle and no intensity. The performances predominantly lack passion and the screenplay doesn’t supply adequate motivation for any of the characters to possess the dedication required to tackle the faceless foes of a corrupt banking world.
“The International” is adequate as escapist cinema; had Tykwer invested in a different path, though, it might have yielded far greater returns.