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Vicariously Nailing Villainous Bank Execs

The International (2009)

Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures

“The International” aims to be a thriller of the moment, gearing for topical relevance by making its villain a giant, faceless bank striving for world domination. While current events may have validated that notion, it doesn’t make for great suspense fodder despite the best efforts of director Tom Tykwer and screenwriter Eric Warren Singer. Unlike the similarly evil corporations prominently featured in films like “Three Days of the Condor” and “Michael Clayton,” the International Bank of Business and Credit’s corruption comes across in an easily quantifiable form. Its motives lack mystery and its methods prove wholly predictable.

Even heroic Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and his counterpart, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), know all about the illicit activities perpetrated by the bank. There is no doubt, for example, that the organization is involved in the illegal sale of high-tech weaponry. When the leading Italian prime minister candidate is assassinated, the screenplay clearly spells out the responsible party and the reasons for the murder. The picture never explicates what Salinger and Whitman honestly believe they’ll accomplish in their investigation of the bank’s culpability in all this. As the movie’s weathered wise man (Armin Mueller-Stahl) so eloquently puts it, the IBBC essentially controls everything.

Thus, the film offers a classic example of a screenwriter boxing himself in a narrative corner from which there is no escape. Mr. Tykwer gives the picture a highly polished Hollywood sheen, complete with such classic genre touches as sweeping panoramas of international locales, wide shots of imposing modernist constructions, chases full of quick cuts and an extensive shootout set piece in the Guggenheim Museum. Still, these best efforts only serve to periodically mask the fundamental problems: the good guys are chasing an impossibly corrupt institution, every villainous action seen onscreen is unambiguously attributed to that institution and the filmmakers never engender any sense of progress in the investigation.

This subsumes the production in a sort of toxic torpidity. At the very least, one might have hoped for some sort of human interest to emerge from somewhere within the facile surface and the stagnant plot. Such hopes too are confounded. Mr. Owen plays the same intense, angrily righteous character he’s played about a half-dozen times before, even down to his characteristic trench coat. The statue of limitations on this particular archetype has officially expired. Ms. Watts – straightforward and dull – barely resonates, and Mr. Mueller-Stahl dispenses wisdom while looking bored.

The screenplay devotes little time to the characters’ backgrounds beyond some brief references, one scene with Ms. Watts and her family and a late interrogation. The source of their peculiar, steadfast shared obsession — the bank’s assassination of a colleague — never feels like sufficient personal justification, particularly because they are never shown interacting with him. Instead, they talk about the case, investigate the case, talk some more, tail some people and do some more talking before an enormous letdown of an ending. Disappointing, because the film does possess the pieces of a thoughtful, '70s style thriller. If the makers of “The International” had concentrated more on entertaining their audience and placed less emphasis on topicality, and if they’d given Mr. Owen and Ms. Watts something more to do with their parts, they might have had something special.


Opens on Feb. 13 in the United States and on Feb. 27 in Britain.

Directed by Tom Tykwer; written by Eric Warren Singer; director of photography, Frank Griebe; edited by Mathilde Bonnefoy; music by Mr. Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil; production designer, Uli Hanisch; produced by Charles Roven, Richard Suckle and Lloyd Phillips; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Clive Owen (Louis Salinger), Naomi Watts (Eleanor Whitman), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Wilhelm Wexler) and Ulrich Thomsen (Jonas Skarssen).


Finally saw this, and although I don't agree with all of your review, much of it is spot on. I actually quite liked the movie as I was watching it, but you're right... they set up an unsolvable conundrum, and then proceed not to solve it. I was really intrigued by the plot twist that took Owen to the "wrong side of the law", and was hoping that they were setting up a brilliant climax that would open a door out of the plot box; but we knew from early on that the individual bankers, "evil" as they might be, are simply cogs in the machine, easily replaced. For Owen to basically set a trap to reveal the bank's double-dealng weapons strategy, have the trap fail, and then just settle for a personal vendetta against the bankers themselves, left me just saying "what? really?"

And insult to injury, the newspaper headlines under the closing credits, revealing that this causes only a temporary setback to the bank, condescends to the audience in a truly grating way.

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