It's a rainy day in Berlin -- and an even worse day for Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), an Interpol agent who has just seen his partner drop dead. Heart attack, say the doctors; murdered, says Salinger, who believes such untimely deaths befall those who, like himself, attempt to shed light on the nefarious bank known as IBBC. Salinger's single-minded pursuit of this global lender of choice for bad people forms the spine of Tom Tykwer's muddled thriller, The International.
The globe-hopping film feels as if it was poorly condensed from a massive beach novel, one that groans with technical details, sub-sub-plots and a logical, if preposterous, tying up of all loose ends. In fact, the work is an original screenplay by Eric Singer.
While some plot points feel underdeveloped, at other times, the action stops to let a character fill in a lot of backstory and motivation -- such as, "the essence of the banking industry is to make us slaves to debt." So that's why IBBC is assassinating Interpol agents and Italian businessmen? (Singer's error may have been to establish the bank's evilness with overcomplicated geo-politics. These days, big financial institutions come pre-loaded with a bad reputation. Banks are killing select Europeans to gin up profits? Sure, makes sense.)
The International hints of European influence: The vibe is downbeat, with shades of gray and an overlay of sophistication borne of acutely developed cynicism. But at other times, it's the American Way: guns a-blazing, square-jawed moralizing and never-say-die heroics.
Among the film's forced storylines is the introduction of Salinger's partner in justice, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), an assistant DA in New York City. It doesn't make any sense, and poor Watts has little to do except ask Salinger questions.
But adding the Big Apple means that Salinger and a mess o' bad guys with automatic weapons show up at the Guggenheim, and turn the fabled corkscrewed museum into so much Swiss cheese. (Tykwer recreated the museum on a stage set.) The sequence is twisty mayhem, and particularly exhilarating if you harbor any resentment toward the Guggenheim and contemporary video-art.
The absurd museum shoot-out is one of The International's better sequences. So too is Salinger's conversation with one of IBBC's top men, portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl, whose cagey eyes are matched by Owen's intense, haunted stare. When these two debate justice, one wishes the film was more of a cerebral conspiracy thriller and not another blast-o-fest.
Ultimately, The International never holds together because it splits the difference between a morally ambiguous think-y drama and a by-the-book actioner, with both genres suffering. And nothing illustrates that failing better than the film's final scene, which bears all the hallmarks of too many threads being hastily shoved into a box rather than woven together.