Arriving at a time when the world is facing an economic recession and bankers are regarded with disdain, The International looks like a remarkably prescient film. Written by Eric Singer, this story about a corrupt financial institution does not seem as far-fetched in 2009 as it might once have done. However, given that the film was actually ready for release in the comparatively calm summer of 2008 and was then delayed for six months, one has to say those behind The International got lucky.
There's not a great deal that's smart or original about this film. An attempt to replicate the spirit of such classic conspiracy thrillers as The Parallax View (1974) and All The President's Men (1976), this humdrum movie doesn't even have the skill to be properly derivative. This is all the more surprising, considering it starts so well with a scene at Berlin's glorious Hauptbahnhof Station. A colleague of Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) receives some vital information, only to be injected with something by a passer-by, start vomiting, then collapse and die.
After Salinger determines it to be murder, it sets him on the trail of the International Bank of Business and Credit, a Luxembourg-based institution that is a little less friendly than your local building society. Joined by Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts, in a threadbare and thankless role), an assistant district attorney from Manhattan, Salinger becomes obsessed with investigating the bank, which appears to be caught up in all manner of nefarious schemes involving African rebels, nuclear weaponry and arming both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Directed by Tom Tykwer, The International soon recalls his earlier - and much better - film, Run Lola Run (1998), in that it becomes a relentless chase movie. Yet the faster it moves, the more ridiculous it gets. For example, the film's centrepiece scene: a nerve-shredding shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Salinger arrives at the building, only to be stalked by numerous machine-gun wielding assassins from the bank, all wearing matching uniforms. There are James Bond plots that are more credible.
After this scene, which arrives two thirds of the way through the film, there is little left but for Salinger to skip from country to country (Italy, Turkey - just about any place the filmmakers think colourful) in his quest to corner Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomson), the head of the bank. Strangely, it recalls the way Children Of Men, which also starred Owen, petered out in the final third. At least Tykwer casts well. Both Danish actor Thomson and German Armin Mueller-Stahl (Eastern Promises) as Skarssen's henchman Wilhelm Wexler, lend the film a sheen of European class that eludes most Hollywood stars.
As for Owen, he is solid enough as Salinger, a man who appears to have no private life. At one point, Eleanor tells him to get laid. "You offering?" he quips back. But this is the extent of the humour in an otherwise sombre and serious affair. Despite its tone, the film never really convinces, mainly due to the preposterous plotting and poor characterisation. Bankers may be the men we love to hate right now, but in The International, they are nothing more than convenient cookie-cutter villains.