The International (Film Review)

Reviewed by James Slone

(originally published by in 2010)

Clive Owen has a knack for playing jaded men in ridiculous situations. He lumbers around onscreen with his cynical frown and tired voice, and yet holds our attention. The withering stares and ruffled shirts are offset by a glint of sympathetic earnestness in his eyes, the occasional shit-eating grin, and the sheer size of the man. He can sustain an entire film simply by muttering complaints, hurling insults and sizing people up with incredulous glances. A by-the-numbers political thriller, “The International,” is elevated a little by his presence.

If I had to give you a reason for seeing “The International” aside from Owen, it would be the spectacularly bloody shootout in the Guggenheim that goes so far overboard with well-choreographed carnage that it threatens to break the generic film it’s buttressed by in half. It’s brutal, witty and unhinged in an almost liberating way, idiotically pointless but completely absorbing and, most important, entertaining. It’s the kind of scene that wakes you up in the theater—you rub your eyes and sit up a little.

Owen plays Louis Salinger, a bitterly idealistic Interpol agent investigating the illegal loaning and investment activities of a transnational German bank, the ominously named International Bank of Business and Credit. They’re one of these omnipresent corporate powers you find in movies, who can be anywhere with an assassin within a few days to rub out people who get too close. This is one of those stories where the hero is warned that the conspiracy goes all the way to the top.

Louis is accompanied in his investigations by a New York Assistant DA, Eleanor Whitman. She’s played by Naomi Watts in the thankless role of smart woman sidelined in a man’s world. By golly, she’s determined to help Louis bring down the bank, but when the story calls for action, she tends to disappear into the background. She’s a star, but not the star. She’s mostly around for aid and comfort, but not, I was relieved to discover, sex. Aside from some hot simmering passion, these partners are purely platonic, and I’m always quick to offer praise to any Hollywood film that defies the temptation to play matchmaker.

Owen and Watts trot around Europe, Turkey and NYC in an assortment of ultra-contemporary corporate buildings and postcard-ready cityscapes—the movie is called “The International” after all—and soon discover that the bank has been investing in and buying weapons for various warring factions and states in order to eat their debt, one of those neat scams that financial institutions in the developed world tend to take for granted. The film is so efficiently predictable that the director, Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) doesn’t even bother to show anyone traveling between the countries and cities; he simply cuts.

Louis has a couple of interesting encounters with the bad guys, including an expert assassin who lends a hand in the Guggenheim shootout ( Brían F. O’Byrne), the surprisingly amicable, family-oriented head of the bank (the crisply efficient Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen), and most interesting, an old ex-Stasi troubleshooter. Played by Armin Mueller-Stahl (“Eastern Promises”), he’s probably the most complex character in the film, an old Communist ideologue turned big business facilitator. In the film’s best conversation, Louis berates the old turncoat for selling out by working for the enemy.

The old man advises Louis that he may be able to take down the bank, but that banks are so insulated and protected in the West, he will have to accept a certain amount of collateral damage, will have to work outside the law and make sacrifices. Like the shootout, this scene blindsides you with radical conviction you’re not really expecting in the midst of a middling thriller. Of course, it goes a little too far by suggesting an implacable conspiracy. It’s one thing to indict the West’s financial institutions for corruption and exploitation, another thing to assign them power greater than governments.

While using a bank as a villain will certainly strike a populist chord in a period of bad loans and bailouts, the kind of power this bank exercises will be hard for most audiences to believe when half the private banks in the world aren’t even solvent. Banks have been handed an inordinate amount of power, but they’re not intransient, and nor is economic corruption as inevitable as the cynical finale of the film suggests. If elected governments are held accountable, so too will be the banks.

“The International” benefits from a well-cast lead, a few interesting ideas and one fabulous action scene, but feels curiously insubstantial. It’s diverting, but like a lot of classy political thrillers, doesn’t pack a lot of weight dramatically or stylistically. It’s a little too slick and neat to inspire any real emotions and a little too preposterous to spark genuine political debate—it’s ultimately too outlandish and inoffensive for its own good. Except for that shootout. That’s one hell of a scene.

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