THE INTERNATIONAL is a convoluted film about a complicated subject. Certainly complicated best describes the ins and outs of international banking, a business that doesnt so much disrespect borders and politics as ignore them altogether as being just so much piffle in the grand scheme of things. Certainly the premise that debt rules the world, not money as such, could not be more timely. And certainly with a focused, more economical script, this could have been a devastating commentary on the zeitgeist. As it stands, its a very long trudge through the desert to get to the few oases of pith.
The look is as spare and cold as a bankers heart, or at least the ones of the bankers involved in the titular institution here. When the film begins, its with what may be a big break in the investigation of it, as two men meet in a car in Berlin to discuss why The International Bank of Credit and Commerce is investing so heavily in missiles. One man is an investigator from America, the other is a bank officer and shortly they will both be dead. Its something that happens with astonishing frequency to those threatening to foul any of the banks schemes. Its something that Lou Salinger (Clive Owen) has come up against before, first at Scotland Yard, where he burned out, and now at Interpol, where hes about to. His helpmeet in this is Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), an investigator in the Manhattan DAs office who is looking into money laundering. Together they try to convince the authorities that the heart attacks and car accidents that consistently ruin their case can be a little too convenient, but with little success, what with the reach the bank has to in making both police reports and people disappear.
There is a great deal of plot here and there is much talking about it through the course of the film. There is also much travel from Berlin to Zurich to Milan (where there are no cars that arent black, white, or gray), to New York, to Istanbul. In each place bad things happen that are telegraphed far in advance, subverting anything like the element of surprise. A sense of nihilistic inevitability would have substituted nicely, but that, too, is missing. Director Tom Tykwer, who scaled the heights of pure kinetic energy in RUN LOLA RUN, and plumbed the inner workings of a damaged soul in PERFUME, does what he can. In Owen he has a leading man who is the perfect embodiment of obsession bordering on the unhinged without quite making that final break. Instead, he maintains the tension of a man clinging to his last chance and knowing that its a race between either the case cracking or his mind. Individual scenes are crisp, in contrast to the script. When there is a point to be made finally, it is with the same impersonal coolness of the banker, or his minion, a mood that dominates the art direction replete with post-industrial glass and chrome. The struggle at hand, between Salinger and the bank,a finds its metaphor in the color scheme, in which there is black, for evil, white for good, and an ocean of gray representing the gulf between where the game of cat-and-mouse is actually played.
There are, perhaps, metaphors also to be found in the films several plot holes. An armed police response to a shootout at a major metropolitan museum taking over 10 minutes? Our hero being able to sneak out of same dragging someone badly wounded?
The kicker is that even while a mousy-looking assassin with a distinctive footprint (how convenient or metaphorical) solves many of the banks problems, even while there is a bloodbath a the Guggenheim Museum, even while geo-politics is played with no regard to the human cost, there is absolutely nothing personal in any of this for the bank, and precious little, as far as the actual deals on paper go, that is illegal. And that is the moral of the story that the film was getting at, badly. It makes THE INTERNATIONAL an edifying story to tantalize conspiracy theorists and anti-capitalists, but not one that, in the strictest sense of the word, entertains.