Film Review: The International

Tom Tykwer's globe-spanning thriller about corporate malfeasance offers ideas, pace, beauty, and an aces turn from thinking-man's action hero Clive Owen.

German filmmaker Tom Tykwer presented his calling card in 1998 with the pulsating experimental film Run, Lola, Run. Now he weighs in with The International, a globe-hopping thriller that artfully mixes kinetic entertainment with a torn-from-the-headlines theme: the abuses and criminal behavior of a private megabank with tentacles reaching across the planet. A more conventional genre film than Lola, The International nonetheless shares that earlier effort's caffeinated, headlong pace—looking back, you might have predicted Tykwer had a large-scale thriller in him.

Anchoring The International is Clive Owen as Interpol agent and former Scotland Yard detective Louis Salinger, a driven, vinegary fellow with an aversion to shaving, who appears to have no life other than exposing the shady dealings of a bank called the IBBC (based on the real-life Bank of Credit and Commerce International from the ’90s). Opening in front of the ominous bulk of the Berlin Bahnhof, the film kicks into action when Salinger's undercover partner is murdered in sickening fashion. Enter Salinger's sidekick, Naomi Watts as Eleanor Whitman, a Manhattan assistant district attorney who does have a life (a husband and young son), yet is equally dedicated to pursuing justice. The pair criss-cross the globe—Milan, Lyon, Luxembourg, New York, Istanbul—in their efforts to expose not only the murderer, but a whole raft of crimes perpetrated by the IBBC, ranging from money laundering, to illegal arms deals, to fomenting political coups that keep Third World countries in debt.

The centerpiece of the film—maybe its raison d'etre—is an extended shootout in the Guggenheim. After Salinger has tailed assassin Brian F. O'Byrne to Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic museum, a battle royal rages along the spiraling white ramps hung with an installation of moving video panels. Yes, we're talking wholesale destruction (mainly filmed in a reconstructed Guggenheim in Berlin), yet the sequence plays like an exhilarating piece of performance art. It also expands the overall theme by implying that the shady institutions under scrutiny control not only states, but culture as well.

Perhaps taken up with real-life childcare, Watts makes for a wan presence as she whizzes through airports in a nifty black leather coat. But as Salinger, Owen is aces, the thinking-man's action hero: intelligent, cranky, vulnerable, sexy. Almost as a tease, he and Watts barely even flirt, suggesting that when up against massive evil-doing, there ain't no time for love.

Some might call it architecture porn, while others will concur that the film transcends genre through Tykwer's use of buildings—façades, interiors, rooftops—to convey sinister forces and emotional states. The gleaming grey-blue corporate suites become the fearsome visual embodiment of corporate might. A building's transparency, glass and light suggest, ironically, the hidden machinations of its inhabitants—while the many top-down shots favored by Tykwer's brilliant DP Frank Griebe propose that the protagonists, for all their determination, are powerless beside mammoth, impersonal forces.

At moments the plot turns overly convoluted and implausible details abound: Where did they find an honest Italian pol? How does an assistant D.A. get to jet around the globe? That said, The International is a thriller that challenges the mind, raises the pulse rate, and foregrounds architecture in original and evocative ways.