Under ashen skies at the Berlin airport, two men meet in a parked car. They don’t know each other, and don’t seem to want to. They have a deal to do, and we can assume it is shady.
“You need to relax,” says the guy in the back seat.
“I’m more comfortable tense,” the guy behind the wheel replies.
Probably there will be a betrayal. Probably it has happened already. Back-seat guy gets out and walks away, toward an anxious and bedraggled Clive Owen, who stands waiting for him on the other side of a traffic-thicketed thoroughfare. Something is up, all right. But before the guy has a chance to report, he winces sharply, clutches his arm, barfs on the curb, and crumples to his death. Heart attack, right? Or was it foul play?
A brief aside: Have you noticed how often we see people vomit in movies nowadays? Seriously, it’s a lot. Revisit The Reader or Slumdog Millionaire for other recent examples, or just wait and watch for the inevitable new ones, and now try not to think it’s strangely conspicuous. Has there been a faux-puke technology breakthrough or something?
Anyway, having seen the guy lose his lunch and his life, Owen gets more anxious, then gets hit by a car.
Welcome to The International. Please sit forward and do not relax. You will be more comfortable tense. Owen stars as an Interpol agent who, along with Naomi Watts as a more kempt but less interesting New York City assistant district attorney, plays a globetrotting game of cat-and-mouse with an all-powerful, deeply nefarious multinational bank.
And I mean deeply nefarious. For instance, Watts, too, gets hit by a car, and very much on purpose. But that’s just for starters. Under the detail-minding stewardship of one seriously chilly chief executive Euro-scoundrel (Ulrich Thomsen), this is an institution whose action plan for long-term growth consists of trading up from laundering mob money to stoking third-world arms races in order to collect perpetual debt from the racers.
Owen’s investigator used to work for Scotland Yard, where he tried to turn the heat up on this bank once before. But that backfired, somewhat mysteriously, and cost him his job. He shouldn’t have taken it personally, though; you’re not really on the International Bank of Business and Credit’s shit list until multiple assassins are hired to kill the multiple assassins who’ve been hired to kill you.
Because it has a nostalgic whiff of ’70s-style man-against-malevolent-system thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View, there is reason to worry, early on, that The International will be plenty handsome and classy and grown up but also derivative and actually kind of boring. We have seen this kind of thing on the home front recently enough, usually with George Clooney in the driver’s seat of what amounts to a Cadillac CTS sedan of a movie: impressive to a few of the neighbors, maybe, but not the ones who drive BMWs.
Which is only to say that Bavarian engineering does make a difference. German director Tom Tykwer, most famous for Run Lola Run, has a knack for arty suspense and for moving through cities–in this case, the commerce centers of Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, and the United States–with brisk intensity. If you thought retching dead guy was something, just wait until it’s time for Tykwer’s assuredly choreographed if subtlety-chucking climactic shootout in New York City’s Guggenheim Museum–by turns thrilling, astonishing, ridiculous, then thrilling again, then sort of confusing, then a little disgusting, then exhausting, and finally very sobering.
Now, perhaps all this business of banking-industry bad guys sounds like a trumped-up reach for topicality. But as screenwriter Eric Warren Singer understands (better, unfortunately, than he understands how to make Watts’ character compelling), there is an older and even more direct precedent for such financial deviltry, in the real-life case of the multi-billion-dollar Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which succumbed to global scandals in 1991. Certain sorts of corruption, like certain sorts of movies, are timeless.
The International also has the advantage of fine, genre-savvy supporting performances from Brian F. O’Byrne and Armin Mueller-Stahl among its villains, an appealing sheen of gloom from cinematographer Frank Griebe, and aptly shivery incidental music by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. Maybe it’s not the ultimate driving machine, as thrillers go, but it is designed to perform. Do buckle up, and bring a barf bag.