Consider this a warning to Nazis, dictators, religious fanatics and global terrorists. You just got downsized. There's a new breed of varmint ready to blast it out at the Obama Corral, if that's what it takes to hold tight to their stock options and megabonuses. Yup, I'm talking bankers. That's real evil, baby. Gone are the days when banks were content to simply foreclose on an old lady's mortgage. Wearing Brioni suits, silk ties and the unruffled expressions of the professionally soulless, the bank chiefs in The International are happy to abuse power and our money by financing an arms deal or a revolution or, hell, even a new vacation home. And if they screw up, so what? Even foreign banks with U.S. ties can qualify for a bailout. Welcome to economic Armageddon.
The International, a decent thriller that should have been dazzling, is nothing if not topical. And sexy, too, thanks to the star presence of intrepid Clive Owen as Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent who teams up with Naomi Watts as Manhattan assistant district attorney Eleanor Whitman, to track down bank skulduggery that doesn't stop at murder. IBBC, the Luxembourg bank at the center of the movie, resembles the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a Pakistan operation that conducted a reign of terror for three decades until 1991. But citing historical precedent is hardly necessary now when banking misdeeds are front and center in all our lives.
Given the potent premise, it's too bad that The International goes Hollywood when today's headlines show that fact easily trumps fiction. Blame for the Ponzi scheme of a plot falls on first time screenwriter Eric Warren Singer,whose sleight-of-hand is buried in exposition. Singer forgets that action is character. Luckily, the action — when it comes — is primegrade. Director Tom Tykwer, after stalling with Heaven and Perfume, returns to the 1998 breakthrough form of his Run, Lola, Run, goosing things along in high style.
The money trail for Louis begins in Berlin, where a colleague winds up dead in the street after linking IBBC with a deal involving missiles and the Chinese. Next stop is Milan, where a political assassination has IBBC fingerprints all over it. Then New York, where Eleanor tries to figure why Louis' investigation keeps getting stalled by higher authorities.
Any resemblance to other location-hopping suspense movies is purely coincidental, that is, if you don't count the James Bond series, the Bourne trilogy and every chase epic that managed to strike gold at the box office. But even when The International confuses speed with just spinning its wheels, Owen supplies the needed center of gravity. His haunted eyes build a back story for Louis that the script barely investigates. From the underrated Croupier to the superb Children of Men, Owen has proved himself the thinking man and woman's action hero, serving up brains and brawn in a hypnotic wrapper.
The rest of the actors have it tougher. The reliably luminous Watts is forced to make do with a nothing part. And Ulrich Thomsen is all surface menace as IBBC's head. Only the great Armin Mueller-Stahl cuts deep into his banker's psyche, finding the killer instinct that can turn a boardroom into a metaphoric slaughterhouse.
There's nothing allusive about the film's wow sequence, a blood-on-the-walls shootout at Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum, re-created magnificently on a soundstage in Germany. It's here that the excellent Brian F. O'Byrne opens fire as the consultant, much like the professor, the assassin Owen played in The Bourne Identity. For 15 minutes, Tykwer choreographs a bullet ballet up and down the museum ramps. The scene, staggering in its impact, is almost worth the price of admission. OK, it doesn't tell you much about the role of banks in the current economic free-fall. But if you want to know, it's a humdinger of a stimulus package.