Tom Tykwer’s The International is one of those movies in which shadowy men meet in parked cars, abandoned buildings, and inconspicuous public spaces (museum galleries are a particular favorite), travel under assumed names, and always glance nervously over their shoulders, fearful of being spied on through a sniper’s lens. Some come to give information, others to glean it. All tread carefully around potentially bugged telephones, possibly sabotaged automobiles, or any stranger passing too closely in the street, lest one feel a slight prick of the skin and, moments later, keel over from a quick-acting poison. What, might you ask, is the cause for all this cloak-and-dagger skullduggery? Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to bore you.
As generic as its title, The International unfolds in a half-dozen countries, with a conspiratorial plot that implicates most of the civilized world, as yet another dogged believer in justice-for-all seeks to expose the infernal machinations of a seemingly untouchable conglomerate. That the capitalist bogeyman this time is a Luxembourg bank with a brisk sideline in political assassinations and third-world arms dealing hardly matters. We could just as soon be talking about The Parallax View‘s nefarious Parallax Corporation or the CIA of Three Days of the Condor, to mention but two of the 1970s paranoia thrillers after which Tykwer’s film slavishly patterns itself.
Only nobody in those films—not even Robert Redford’s nerdy Condor researcher—seemed quite as dense as Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), the bedraggled Interpol agent who walks through the entirety of The International looking downright aghast at the ends to which men will go in the pursuit of money and power. Who knew? Salinger carries the troubled past required of all conspiracy-movie heroes (the better for Big Brother to discredit them when the time comes), so evidenced by his perpetual bedhead and stubble and propensity for engaging in self-righteous shouting matches with his superiors, which reliably end with someone reminding him that he’s “not at Scotland Yard anymore.” Likewise, we know he’s found a kindred spirit in the equally idealistic Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) as soon as we see her lecturing her own jaded boss on the importance of truth and responsibility. Both actors seem mildly aggrieved (and not at all convincing) at having to play characters considerably less intelligent than themselves in a movie that plays even dumber.
If there’s one thing that Tykwer—whose career has traced a generally downward trajectory in the decade since the effectively gimmicky Run Lola Run—knows about, it’s perpetual motion. So round and round The International goes—from Berlin to Luxembourg, Milan, and New York—while Salinger and Whitman pursue an elusive hired gun (Brian F. O’Byrne) who may be the key to proving their case, dodging the requisite bullets and tinted sedans en route to the startling revelation that sometimes one has to bend the law in order to enforce it.
Around the time you begin to wonder if Owen and Watts achieved platinum frequent flyer status while filming, they corner the hitman and his ex-Stasi handler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) in, of all places, Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, whereupon The International devolves into an orgy of destruction that should appease anyone who has ever wondered what a Michael Bay installation might look like. Given its biggest role in a film since Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic, six-story spiral (actually an elaborate and highly convincing replica built on a German soundstage) is swarmed by Uzi-wielding baddies who fire thousands of rounds into conceptual art pieces and museumgoers alike, providing The International with a working metaphor for its own shotgun wedding of grindhouse inclinations and art-house ambitions.
The first produced script by screenwriter Eric Warren Singer, The International takes its inspiration from the 1991 scandal surrounding the Pakistani-run Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which counted Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega among its clients and turned out to be one of the biggest Ponzi schemes of the pre-Madoff era. The movie never comes close, though, to the genuinely unsettling tenor of such recent corporate cautionary tales as Time Out, Michael Clayton, and French director Nicolas Klotz’s tragically underseen Heartbeat Detector, which suggested how an ordinary man or woman might lose his soul to the New Economy, and how a multinational’s perfectly legal fiscal policy could be far more sinister than any overtly illicit activity. “Fiction has to make sense,” Mueller-Stahl asserts during a third-act interrogation scene, before pointing out that real life abides by no such rules of order. Yet for all its ripped-from-the-headlines sleight-of-hand, The International traffics in the most reductive of fiction conventions, feigning world-weary cynicism while laboring toward an ending that offers both reasonable closure and faith in the ability of good to trump evil. Here is a movie for a time when such clear convictions could be taken to the bank, released into a world where they are no longer worth the celluloid they’re printed on.