International banks are the bad guys in this expansive conspiracy thriller
Louis Salinger is an Interpol agent scrambling amid the lethal tangles of a vast trans-national conspiracy involving international banking and the third-world market in weapons. He’s trying to bring the whole thing down, but that’s no simple matter—he has to avoid pre-emptive retaliation from those he would bring to justice, and he has to thread his way past corruption at seemingly every level of the social institutions he’s trying to serve.
That’s a provocative setup for this globetrotting suspense thriller with an unmistakable contemporary edge to it, and it also provides the makings of an over-the-top paranoid fantasy grafting a super-spy adventure onto a dystopian nightmare. Working from a script by first-time screenwriter Eric Warren Singer, director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) navigates the tale’s extravagantly varied possibilities with a steady, crafty flair, never fully giving in to the preposterousness or the utter madness that hover over a good deal of the story.
It helps a lot that Tykwer has Clive Owen on hand to play Salinger. Indeed, the dynamics of Owen’s screen persona—that beleaguered combination of heroic intensity and broken-hearted despair—are an essential part of the film’s efforts at surviving the cynical gloom of its own plot machinations.
Nevertheless, Owen/Salinger is more a defining presence than a fully drawn character, and that’s typical of the film as a whole. Owen’s co-star, Naomi Watts, gives a routine performance in a central but mostly functional role (an assistant district attorney in New York, she’s Salinger’s most powerful and helpful enabler). A dozen or so supporting players make strong impressions, but almost all of them have little to do apart from cutting the appropriate figure for whatever moment has been assigned them in the twists and turns of Salinger’s scenario.
Armin Mueller-Stahl, the distinguished Austrian actor, gets a pungent confrontation scene with Owen/Salinger midway in the action, but much of his screen time is devoted to brief appearances exuding vague menace as a particularly conspicuous figure in the film’s steadily expanding gallery of behind-the-scenes manipulators. The Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen exhibits credibly bland authority in a cameo as the mastermind among the story’s Machiavellian bankers.
Tykwer mounts the production in a series of spectacular and ironic settings, with steel-and-glass architecture and a palette of metallic blues and grays given apposite prominence. The pacing is brisk and efficient, for the most part, and yet some of the most intriguing sequences vary those generic rhythms in startling fashion—either accelerating or slowing way down, presumably in keeping with the start-and-stop patterns of a narrative that proceeds by (temporarily disorienting) leaps and bounds.
On the whole, The International is not entirely satisfying, either as a thriller or as a socio-political exposé. But, under the circumstances, that too is at least partly to its credit. After all, if the movie is really serious about the evils it portrays, then it is obliged to acknowledge that the situation requires remedies well beyond the capacities of even the most dedicated of action-movie heroes.