Pay you back with interest: The International ***

By Dennis Hartley

Owen and Watts: Lawyers, guns and money.

Get this. In the Bizarro World of Tom Tykwer’s new conspiracy thriller, The International, people don’t rob banks…. banks rob people. That’s crazy! And if you think that’s weird, check this out: at one point in the film, one of the characters puts forth the proposition that true power belongs to he who controls the debt. Are you swallowing this malarkey? Oh, and it gets even better. The filmmakers even go so far as to suggest that some Third World military coups are seeded by powerful financial groups and directed from shadowy corporate boardrooms. What a fantasy! I suppose the next thing you’re gonna tell me is that these same “evil bankers” will devise some nefarious bailout plan that enables them to sustain their self-indulgent standards of high living while the world’s economy collapses-and all at the expense of hard-working taxpayers. Yeah, right.

The (fictional) international bank in question is under relentless investigation by a stalwart Interpol agent (the ever-glum Clive Owen), who is following a trail of shady arms deals all over Europe and the Near East that appear to be linked to the organization. Whenever anyone gets close to exposing the truth about the bank’s Machiavellian schemes and criminal enterprises, they die under Mysterious Circumstances (alas, it is the karma for all whistle-blowers portrayed by lower-billed actors in a conspiracy thriller). The chase leads to New York, where (for reasons I was not 100% clear on) Owen is teamed up with a Manhattan-based assistant D.A. (Naomi Watts). Complexity ensues, with tastefully-attired Eurotrash assassins lurking behind every silver-tongued bank exec.

Director Tykwer, best-known for his hyper-kinetic cult thriller Run Lola Run, seems a bit at odds with himself here. He appears to be paying homage to the smartly-written, Byzantine and deliberately paced political paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, like Three Days of the Condor and Day of the Jackal, yet he also employs structural elements more akin to the logic-defying, action-driven escapades of a James Bond/Jason Bourne adventure (an imaginatively mounted shoot-out in New York’s Guggenheim art museum is  exciting from a purely cinematic standpoint, yet seems in-congruent with the rest of the narrative).

That being said, I still found the film involving enough to hold my attention throughout. It’s far from a classic, but if you are a sucker for the genre (like yours truly), I think you’ll find it a worthwhile diversion. I enjoyed the Bondian travelogue device (it even has the mandatory stop in Istanbul-complete with the requisite foot chase through a crowded bazaar). Owen and Watts hold your attention (although I would have liked to have seen more screen chemistry between them, and would it kill Clive Owen to crack just a tiny little smile once in a while?) and there is an excellent supporting performance from the frequently underrated German character actor, Armin Mueller-Stahl.

The timing of the film’s release is interesting, in light of the current banking crisis and the plethora of financial scandals. From what I understand, screenwriter Eric Singer (no relation to the drummer from Kiss) based certain elements of the story on the real-life B.C.C.I. scandal. I predict that this will become the ubiquitous new trend in screen villains-the R. Allen Stanfords and Bernie Madoffs seem heaven-sent to replace Middle-Eastern terrorists as the Heavies du Jour for action thrillers. You can take that to the bank.

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