Eleven years ago, Tom Tykwer was the hot new German director of Run Lola Run, an amped-up action film that began at a sprint and never once slowed to a trot as it followed a woman dashing from place to place trying to raise the cash to save her lover. That was the movie that raised the bar on chases and action films.
Now, Tykwer brings us The International, a movie that seems downright quaint in this new Bourne era. It's about 500 edits from hurtling across the screen the way your typical thriller (see Taken) does these days. A slower pace makes for more character development and time to ponder what's happening. But whiplash cross-cutting can hide a world of script sins, such as the wacky turns Eric Singer's screenplay takes in the third act of this film. Although well-acted, with a bang-up shoot-out staged at New York's Guggenheim Museum, The International feels like decaf compared to the caffeine jag that is the new action state of the art.
Clive Owen and Naomi Watts are Salinger and Whitman, an Interpol agent and a New York district attorney working together to catch a Luxembourg bank in the act of laundering mob and terrorist money. Lou Salinger has been obsessed with the bank since his days at Scotland Yard. That he can no longer arrest or shoot anybody (Interpol policy) irks him no end, as he knows and we see this bank “remove” problem employees, obstacles in the way of deals.
The film's messages sting: There are multinational institutions that are above any one nation's laws, governments will look the other way in the interest of commerce, and banks don't want cash as much as they want to own debt, from China, Middle Eastern terror groups, developing-world revolutionaries, and you and me. The misbehavior of bankers worldwide makes this movie as timely as a CNN ticker.
Every time Salinger and Whitman get close to wrongdoing, co-opted cops, bank spies (led by Armin Mueller-Stahl) and hired assassins get in the way.
“Is there anything else we can do to you, Agent Salinger?” one of the smug big-wigs smirks after a failed interrogation.
But big banks make big boo-boos, and they go too far with one assassination. Salinger and Whitman call in favors and try to track the hired gun back to the folks who sign his checks. Tykwer stages some nice slices of C.S.I. detective work, pushing toward a not-nearly-the-end bloodbath in one of New York's most famous art landmarks.
Owen is properly menacing and obsessed. Watts seems an afterthought here. We meet her character's family, but they aren't put in peril by the evil bank or its henchmen. The villains are fairly nondescript, and you'll either buy into the third-act twists or strain your neck from shaking your head.
But The International manages intrigue and surprise, even if it doesn't have that jolt that Jason Bourne and James Bond have led us to expect from our thrillers. It's a film that, mad as it sometimes seems, gives you things to chew on.
The title's a pun, by the way, to those who remember their history of communism. It takes guts to remember the totalitarianism that was, and the totalitarianism that replaced it, and think there's a thriller in it.