When he made “Run Lola Run” a decade ago, director Tom Tykwer was at the head of the velocity pack; nobody pushed a picture forward faster than he did, or with greater visceral flair. In the interim he’s slowed down considerably (see “The Princess and the Warrior” and “Perfume” for proof), while other filmmakers have ratcheted up the tempo to sometimes unendurable levels (see Marc Forster’s “Quantum of Solace” for a particularly overdone recent example). With this twisty thriller he tries to get back in the race, but by the end he seems distinctly winded. And “The International” does, too.
One thing the script has in its favor is its choice of villains. They’re bankers—a group that, given the current economic situation, people naturally love to hate. The nefarious bunch are the suits running the Luxembourg-based but many-tentacled IBBC, headed by slimy Scandinavian Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen). There are a couple of investigators on their collective tails—Assistant New York City DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) and ex-Scotland Yard Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen). But they’re continually obstructed by higher-ups, whose temerity is a sign of the bank’s vast power. When one of their associates is killed in Berlin by a fast-acting poison after contacting an inside whistle-blower (himself shortly offed in a suspicious “accident”), however, the duo step up their efforts.
What follows is a globe-trotting pursuit of clues and persons that takes our heroes—and us—not just to Luxembourg and New York but Milan, Lyon, and finally Istanbul. Throughout the tour the picture treats us to magnificent locations and particularly impressive buildings—as an architectural celebration it’s really quite impressive. But for all the action sequences, it remains curiously tame and uninvolving. That’s the case even with Tykwer’s piece de resistance, a lengthy shoot-out in New York’s circular Guggenheim Museum involving Salinger and the bank’s chief enforcer (Brian F. O’Byrne) that reduces the place to virtual rubble. It’s by far the best thing in the picture—you have to admire the work of the behind-the-scenes crew who recreated the building’s interior so convincingly and then blew it to smithereens so efficiently. (Indeed, the entire physical production, from Frank Griebe’s elegant cinematography on down, is impressive.) But the sequence goes on too long and gets messy after awhile; it’s effective but oddly ordinary, and you might find yourself thinking what Hitchcock, or the young Brian De Palma, would have done with it.
Nor are the other “big moments” all that impressive. An open-air assassination has the feel of a picture like “The Parallax View” without matching its resonance, and the final chase across the roofs can’t match that in “The Bourne Supremacy”—it’s somehow appropriate that it’s done at a trot rather than a run. It also miscalculates by having villain being the person pursued. That’s part of the script’s decision to set up a personal crisis for the protagonist, making him choose between adhering to principle or going to the dark side to achieve justice. But it still undermines the frisson the audience should feel, its care for the endangered person. (It also cops out, choosing to end with a joke rather than a true resolution.)
The script also errs in trying to have it both ways with respect to the IBBC itself. On the one hand, the bank is presented as an all-powerful force using every trick to sucker important people into its debt and then manipulating them to control the world. But from what we see, the firm acts as ineptly as the real banks we see collapsing around us have done, among other things sending an army of men with automatic weapons into a public display of carnage that could hardly escape massive scrutiny—and then failing even with that sort of gunfire. For all the implications of omnipotence, the IBBC seems an awfully ineffectual operation.
But then so do the people investigating it. Owen scowls and frowns as a man tormented by a past we never really learn about, but he all too persuasively seems a fellow who’s always one step behind—when he’s following someone who’s bugged so that he can remain within earshot of the transmission, you just know he’s going to lose contact at the pivotal moment, and damned if he doesn’t! Watts is simply blank as his colleague—her character is given all the backstory of a single scene with a husband and son, and it tells us nothing about her. Armin Mueller-Stahl has it better as one of the IBBC’s chieftains: he’s the embodiment of the cynical, world-weary attitude one would expect of a man who’s seen too much, and carries off the part expertly, even if it is a cliché. O’Byrne also has his moments as a steely-eyed hit-man, and there are some nice touches from members of the supporting cast. But they’re fleeting.
And that’s the case with the excitement generated by “The International.” Like another global thriller, Sydney Pollack’s “The Interpreter,” it’s a mildly intriguing political puzzler, but never manages to engage the heart as well as the head or make your pulse race as it should.