One of the hardest tasks for Hollywood screenwriters is finding good villains. The problem is not in crafting antagonists who are realistic or even well-suited to the hero in question. It’s in capturing the direction of America’s most up-to-date hatred and exploiting it without violating the politically correct terms of the day. For the run of the Cold War, Russians were the default villains in everything from James Bond movies to Rocky flicks. Then the Berlin Wall fell and they didn’t seem so scary anymore. In the wake of the World Trade Center attack, we had a good run of Middle Eastern villains. (“24,” anyone?) But the tides have turned once again, and we’re starting to view those of Arabic persuasion as allies in the war against terror. So where does that leave us looking for villain fodder? Must we fall back on that tired old evergreen, the evil Nazi?
The film begins quickly, tossing audiences into the middle of a vast conspiracy. The International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) is one of those money-grubbing, multinational organizations that exists solely to rape and pillage the world economy. These men in suits are so damn evil, they’re willing to fund war and terrorism just to build up national debts and therefore their company’s bottom line. Trying vainly to bring this global powerhouse to its knees is upstanding Manhattan District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) and workaholic Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen). They’re both convinced IBBC is up to no good. But they can never seem to prove it, thanks to the countless local police and politicians who are under the thumb of the bank’s considerable financial influence.
When Louis’ Interpol partner dies of a suspicious heart attack and their prime witness snuffs it in a mysterious auto accident, Eleanor and Louis begin to suspect IBBC isn’t above a little assassination to achieve its ends. This leads to a globe-hopping game of cat-and-mouse that would leave James Bond himself winded.
The International is smarter than your average thriller. Generally speaking, American audiences don’t like the word “smart.” It makes them feel stupid. The International does require a bit of attention to untangle as it hops from Berlin to New York to Milan to Istanbul discussing the vagaries of international finance along the way. But not to worry. The script, by first-time pencil pusher Eric Singer, isn’t quite as smart as it acts. Singer breezes past the real details of debt slavery and war-based economy and goes straight for simpleminded revenge. Strip away the shadowy meetings in parking garages, the bugged telephones, the icy corporate boardrooms, the ex-Stasi agents and the general air of mid-’70s political thriller paranoia and this is just another case of Davidian good guys versus Goliath-like bad guys.
The biggest drawback to The International’s success may be in its slow-burn delivery style. Audiences in this post-Bourne world are conditioned to watching thrillers in which somebody gets punched in the throat at least once every five minutes. The International isn’t that kind of film. Which isn’t to say it’s devoid of action. Director Tom Tykwer (who taught us the meaning of the word “momentum” in Run, Lola, Run) builds up stoic tension throughout this well-composed travelogue. (Damn, but the architecture looks sexy.) Eventually, he lets it all explode with a go-for-broke bloodbath staged in the rotunda of Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum. Arty and violent. Nice.
The script sports a few holes, but—thanks to diverting acting and attractive directing—they’ve been patched over with a thin veneer of stucco, giving the overall appearance of smooth construction. At least the script doesn’t try to cram an awkward romantic subplot down our throats. Unfortunately, the ending stands out as something of a disappointment. After setting up some clever third-act action for Owen to engage in, the film peters out. Instead of solid resolution, we get random bloodlust. Owen is left standing around like a dope and Watts gets a 20-minute vacation at the climax. It smacks of underwriting ... or overpolishing ... or some other form of unhelpful tinkering. It’s no Three Days of the Condor or All the President’s Men or The Parallax View. But The International is enough to distract you for a couple hours while the bank forecloses on your home.
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