There’s an extraordinary shoot-out at the Guggenheim Museum coming to theaters this week; unfortunately, you have to sit through “The International” to see it.
Heaven knows the time couldn’t be more right for a movie that portrays international banks as the root of all evil, but this movie’s plotting is so tepid and unengaging that it fails to capitalize on the zeitgeist. Maybe that’s what happens when rich people make movies about this kind of thing.
Clive Owen stars as Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent who has spent years trying to bust IBBC, an international bank that’s been a major money-laundering facility for organized crime and which is now branching out into arms trading. (The one interesting idea in Eric Warren Singer’s script comes in a scene where a character explains the reason behind the bank’s involvement in missile sales: “They don’t want to control the conflict. They want to control the debt that comes after the conflict.”)
Working with Salinger on the case is Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The tricky part about nailing IBBC is that whenever someone might actually come forward with damning evidence, that person winds up dead or permanently missing. (Salinger left Scotland Yard years earlier after he couldn’t save the lives of his star witness and his family.)
After an Italian arms manufacturer (who also happens to be running for prime minister) gets assassinated by a killer working for the bank, Salinger and Whitman realize that if they can find the assailant and connect him to other IBBC-related hits, they’ll have a charge that will stick. Luckily for them, the sniper (played by Broadway star Brían F. O’Byrne) wears a leg brace that’s made by only one company and fitted by just one doctor. Whew!
Tracking the man down to the Guggenheim Museum, where he’s meeting with a senior IBBC exec (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Salinger and his two cohorts from Whitman’s office are spotted, and suddenly they’re trading automatic weapons fire with IBBC goons who want to make sure their assassin won’t live to give testimony against the bank. For all the flaws of “The International,” this segment is extraordinary — it will stand next to Dianne Weist’s roller-skating joke in “Hannah and Her Sisters” in great cinematic moments for the Guggenheim.
Its highlight behind it, however, “The International” still has an entire act to go, involving Mueller-Stahl’s character, the true depth of the IBBC conspiracy and Salinger’s desire to take the bank down even if it means turning his back on legally-accepted modes of justice. Trust me, I’m making the film’s muddled final chunk sound way more interesting than it actually plays. The film sputters to a vague conclusion, tossing some newspaper headlines under the closing credits in an attempt to reach some sort of closure — a closure that we never really believe because of how the film has portrayed IBBC and its clout.
Director Tom Tykwer made his global breakthrough with “Run Lola Run,” and while that wasn’t a perfect movie, it at least felt new and fresh and different. Here, however, he seems to be hitting the usual international-thriller tropes (close-ups of faces, chases through crowded plazas, helicopter shots of sleek and cold modern architecture) more out of a sense of obligation than out of any narrative fervor.
The acting seems similarly phoned-in, more because of the sketchy nature of the characters than laziness on the part of the cast. Still, it’s movies like this one that make you wonder why Clive Owen turned down the chance to be James Bond in favor of scripts like this one.
Bless its heart, “The International” wants desperately to be “The Parallax View,” but to make that Alan J. Pakula classic today would involve getting funding and studio backing for a movie that doesn’t let the audience off the hook by allowing us to go home feeling that justice has prevailed. Of course, this film’s resolution is so opaque that it’s almost a Rorschach blot that allows viewers to impose any number of meanings upon it, but that’s just not the same thing.