The International Dir. Tom Tykwer

[Sony Pictures; 2009]

The International is a movie with Big Ideas; we know because it tells us so, incessantly. Rather than quietly pursue notions of systemic evil and relativism, the film wears its Big Ideas like gaudy jewels on top of the worn formula of the political thriller. It’s a movie bloated on its own condescending philosophizing, and, at the same time, it fails to notice its own intellectual laziness.

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is an Interpol agent obsessed with exposing the criminal dealings of the International Bank of Business and Credit. Teamed with New York District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), he tracks the facts across the globe (Bond-style, with scenic shots and title cards for each locale), exposing a web of arms trade and assassinations. The IBBC is a stand-in for the Bank of Commerce and Credit International, which in the 1990s underwent a scandal involving money laundering, arms tracking, and the sale of nuclear technologies.

You have to feel sorry for Watts and Owen. Not only do they have to deal with ridiculous surnames and stilted dialogue, but their characters also remain almost entirely undeveloped. We know Salinger had a breakdown a few years ago; Whitman’s boring family shows up for a scene or two. That’s it. There are so many twists and turns to navigate, so many Big Ideas to spout, there’s no time for chemistry or character development.

Owen fares the better of the two. He puts on his signature scowl and is good to go. Meanwhile, Watts embarrasses herself. She’s one of the few actresses capable of excelling in both heart-wrenching drama (21 Grams) and comic farce (I Heart Huckabees). But she seems to have no idea why she’s in this film. Neither do we, and neither, it seems, does director Tom Tykwer. A good action-thriller needs to be lean. Watts’ role is entirely fat.

After all, trimming is something we’ve come to expect from Tykwer. About 10 years ago, he brought us one of the tightest, most heart-pounding action flicks of the last decade: Run Lola Run. Critics hailed him as the Next Great Auteur, a title to which he hasn’t risen. He’s a great entertainer, in the same vein as Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionare). Visually, most will find his big-budget debut pretty standard. But, briefly and frequently, Tykwer sets himself apart: An establishing shot is a little father away than usual; a close-up is a little closer than usual. These minor choices energize the screen and, along with some great sound engineering, breathe life into the film.

As in Run Lola Run, Tykwer’s at his best when he ditches intellectualism and gives us action. Here, it’s the much-talked-about shootout at the Guggenheim. It’s a great scene, shot with a deft hand. Rather that revert to his old tricks, Tykwer contradicts his kinetic Lola style in every way: Instead of jolting the pace, he slows it to a crawl, an unceasing, brutal beat-down. Instead of pumping in techno, he turns the volume down, letting the screams of bystanders echo through the empty halls. Instead of flattening his characters, he humanizes them: They scramble, they hide, and they bleed. Boy, do they bleed.

It’s an excellent catharsis. We sigh with satisfaction, pack our things, and prepare to leave. But wait. What is this? There’s a whole half hour left to go. And while the end is better than the portion that preceded the Guggenheim, the choice to keep going is an amateurish mistake for a major motion picture: The ride’s over, and the audience has already gotten off.

This is the characteristic flaw of the film. It proclaims Big Ideas while stylistically undermining them. An all-powerful bank that tangles everyone in a web of debt is a powerful metaphor, in sync with the mood of the time. But instead of seeing systemic evil, we see an evil that acts in the shadows, an exceptional evil that exists outside the system.

Real systemic evil isn’t about assassinations or arms trades; it is so banal, so ordinary that we look it in the face without recognizing it. Real systemic evil exists in broad daylight, and it exists because “that’s how things are done.” Greed, the underbelly of the American Dream, is what brought us into the crisis we face today. Sub-prime mortgages are not the stuff of crime capers. But the pursuit of Big Ideas means intellectual honesty, and the truth isn’t always entertaining.

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