Banks are easy targets at the moment. Widely blamed for bringing about the world recession through huge financial mismanagement, we all love to hate them. By fortuitous timing Tom Tykwers The International taps into this mood in a cracking conspiracy thriller in which bankers are most definitely the bad guys.
The film shows banking greed in a thoroughly nefarious light, with disastrous incompetence replaced by corporate corruption on a massive scale. Inspired by the true-life case of the Bank of Credit and Commercial International (BCCI), which was established in Pakistan in the 1970s as a centre for money laundering and arms trafficking, the movies fictional Luxembourg-based International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) acts as a broker for arms deals with terrorist organization and war-mongering countries. It uses all means necessary including murder in pursuit of its aim to gain worldwide power by controlling debt.
Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) attempt to bring the bank down in a tortuous trail that leads them from Berlin and Milan to New York, and finally Istanbul. Struggling to overcome obstacles of bureaucratic inflexibility and official obstruction from the IBBCs establishment contacts, not to mention the direct threat on their lives, the pair penetrate deep into the banks dark labyrinthine web. However, they find out that holding individuals and even multinational companies to account is one thing, but overcoming a government-sanctioned global system is quite another.
The International is an intelligent thriller, striking a nice balance between action and plot/character development. Not trying to out-Bourne Bourne (as the breathless rather than breathtaking Quantum of Solace regrettably did), it owes more to crime movies of the 1970s such as The French Connection than to more recent high-tech explosive films where not much lurks behind the surface. Measured direction in his first big project by the German Tykwer (best known for Run, Lola, Run and Perfume) provides plenty of suspense as well as thrills, while Eric Warren Singers thoughtful, sometimes witty, script is lean and sharp.
By the standards of most contemporary thrillers, the story is simple and on the whole credible, so that we are not too distracted by trying to work it out, or in worrying about implausibilities even if the sight of Salinger walking down streets with a gun in his hand without the surrounding crowds noticing is hard to swallow. While there is plenty to chew over, there are also some terrific set pieces, especially a literally devastating shoot-out in New Yorks Guggenheim Museum which will have you jumping out of your seat (art lovers should not worry, however, as the museums interior was painstakingly reconstructed in a studio in Germany: no masterpieces were harmed during the making of this film.)
Beautifully photographed by Frank Griebe, locations and architecture both modern and ancient, are an important part of the movie, suitably international as the title suggests. From the Hauptbanhof in Berlin to the Interpol headquarters in Lyon, and from the Pirelli skyscraper in Milan to the mosques, underground cisterns and Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, iconic buildings form a wonderful backdrop to the action sequences. But this is more than just a sightseeing trip round Europes glamorous cities, with the cosmopolitan scale and overbearing concrete and glass tower blocks giving a strong sense of the banks seemingly irresistibly expanding power and reach.
Owen furthers his reputation as a bankable (excuse the pun) star, giving an impressively intense, edgy performance as Salinger, a man dedicated to indeed, obsessed with hunting down his foe. A flawed figure – by no means a conventional hero – whose hot-headedness leads to mistakes, he initially seems paranoid but later his determination and courage come into their own as he prepares to go outside the law to achieve his objective. It is to the films credit that it does not try to build up a predictably romantic relationship between him and Wattss Whitman, who does what she can in an underdeveloped role as a professional with a family who grounds her colleague with patient rationality.
The ever-reliable Armin Mueller-Stahl last seen with Watts in Cronenbergs Eastern Promises adds another portrait to his growing gallery of interesting villains, as the IBBC executive Wilhelm Wexler who was once a committed Communist with the Stasi secret police in East Germany and who tries belatedly to redeem himself. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen epitomizes cool business ruthlessness as the banks CEO Skarssen. And Brian OByrne plays the The Consultant, the banks hitman: a shadowy anonymous figure who becomes hunted by both sides.
Overall The International is a thought-provoking thriller which refreshingly does not resemble an extended hardware advertisement, while its cynical depiction of the banking community will strike a chord with many audiences. Make sure you dont leave without watching the closing credits.