Taking it to the bank
Whether it was prescience or just lucky timing, director Tom Tykwer’s new film The International latches onto a class of supervillains to warm the hearts of moviegoers everywhere: international bankers. And not just any old set of money-lending bureaucrats in thousand-dollar suits, but bankers trafficking in munitions and weapons systems in all the powder-keg regions of a troubled world. Is that a group you can love to hate or what?
The title of Eric Warren Singer’s script may evoke the anthem of worldwide socialism, but it refers more directly to the IBBC, or International Bank of Business and Credit. The head of the IBBC is one Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), a man who is the epitome of amoral greed, gliding through the glass halls of his Luxembourg headquarters like Dracula, so blandly faceless that Thomsen’s features seem to fade from view even as we gaze directly at him.
The word “international” also describes the effort to bring down the IBBC, as personified by Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan deputy district attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts).
We first meet Salinger as he monitors a meeting between two men in a parked car at the Berlin airport. One of the men is an investigator for Whitman’s office; the other (we eventually learn) is an officer of the IBBC who wants to cut a deal. “You need to relax,” says the American; the other replies, “I’m more comfortable tense.”
Before the movie is 15 minutes old, both men are dead—one an apparent heart attack, the other a presumed auto accident, but both, as Salinger deftly uncovers, victims of assassination.
Whitman joins Salinger in Milan to interview a popular Italian industrialist and politician (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi) who has been balking at a key deal with the IBBC. Minutes after the interview, with the promise of more info to come, the politician is shot dead during a speech, in an elaborate two-shooter setup that only a gullible conspiracy buff would ever believe. After about five minutes at the crime scene, Salinger and Whitman unravel the whole scheme, leading us to wonder about the investigative prowess of Italian police.
Despite the rising body count—or maybe because of it—our heroes find themselves out on a limb in taking on the well-insulated IBBC: Salinger has already been squeezed out of Scotland Yard—the reasons are hazy, but he seems to have shown an unseemly eagerness to bring the bank to justice—while Whitman is under pressure from her boss (James Rebhorn) either to get concrete results or to cut back on all these trips to Europe.
As if to simplify Whitman’s expense account, Salinger transfers his own activities to Manhattan, on the trail of the Consultant (Brian F. O’Byrne), the shadowy assassin working for the bank through Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The hunt culminates in a shoot-out on the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim Museum involving Salinger, Wexler, the Consultant, two NYPD detectives, six or eight hired gunmen and several dozen cowering innocent bystanders.
Let’s see now: The IBBC’s assassinations have progressed from a furtive poison pin in a parking lot through a broad-daylight shooting in Milan to a pitched gunfight in a New York tourist spot with only slightly fewer casualties than the Battle of the Marne. Someone is throwing subtlety to the wind here; the question is, is it the IBBC, or is it Tom Tykwer and Eric Warren Singer?
Tykwer and Singer evidently decided that there’s only so much suspense and excitement you can wring out of investigators hunched over their computers tapping away by the pale light of their monitors. It’s possible, even pleasurable, to read The International as a parody of those kinds of thrillers; sooner or later, the slugs have to fly, and boy, do they ever. When Tykwer finally lets loose, the movie gets almost giddy with the high. After that, the movie risks (but avoids) anticlimax, taking another 20 minutes or so to bring things to a satisfying close.
Singer and Tykwer make a good match. Singer may identify with the dogged determination of Salinger and Whitman, but Tykwer is like that early murder victim: He’s more comfortable tense.