Owen plays an Interpol agent, Louis Salinger, who teams with Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts, in a rather thankless role) to bring one of the world's most powerful banks to justice. (Salinger, Whitman – want to bet that screenwriter Eric Warren Singer was an English major?)
This is one of those global thrillers that comes on like a travel brochure. Berlin, Milan, and Istanbul are the big backdrops. On the surface, at least, it all seems very James Bond-ish, except that Tykwer overdoes the grayed-out clamminess of these locations, especially Berlin. The big bad bankers of IBBC – a fictitious corporation not so subtly reminiscent of the real-life BCCI, which collapsed amid scandals in 1991 – are a sleek crew of cut-throats. They seem all of a piece with the cold, reflecting surfaces of their boardrooms. Salinger, by contrast, looks like an unmade bed. "You look terrible," Whitman tells him at one point, and he doesn't disagree.
But Salinger's grubbiness is intended as a badge of integrity. The IBBC is more than a big bank, it's an omnivorous entity that foments wars, finances weapon sales, and assassinates with impunity. All governments, from the democratic to the totalitarian, are in its debt. If your grandmother was standing in the way of the IBBC, it would gleefully run her over. That's how bad it is.
I suppose that, what with the global economic crisis, one could make a case for the timeliness of "The International." You won't find that case made here, dear reader. Don't judge a movie by its packaging. "The International" has about as much to do with current crises as "Mamma Mia!"
What it's mainly about is movie stars skittering from locale to locale while bullets whiz by and the plot thickens – or, more to the point, curdles. The characters are always explaining to one another – i.e., us – what is supposed to be going on. "What are you proposing exactly?" is a generic line of dialogue in "The International." And the answers are not always helpful. After about a half hour I gave up trying to decipher the curlicue plot. From the look of things, so did the filmmakers. In one particularly egregious instance, in Manhattan, Salinger hits a dead end in his search for a notorious IBBC hitman (Brian F. O'Byrne) and then – presto! – the bad guy just happens to saunter by.
The sighting at least leads to a pretty good set piece: a shoot-out inside the Guggenheim Museum, with its winding ramps and nouveau art installations. Most of the scene, needless to say, was not shot at the actual Guggenheim, but the trickery is expert. So is the staging, although the behavior of the shooters doesn't always parse. Why would the bad guy, known only as The Consultant, take off his bulletproof vest just because it's cumbersome – the vest that saved his life? Doesn't he know it's better to be uncomfortable than dead?
The great German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl shows up as a former Commie-turned-IBBC operative, and he has a speech in which he explains to Salinger that fiction, unlike life, has to make sense. He must not have read the script.
Just in case we thought "The International" was just a shoot-'em-up with headline-grabbing pretensions, Tykwer, by the end, frames it as a moral quest. Salinger, you see, realizes that he can only defeat the IBBC-ers by, in essence, becoming as bad as they are. His homicides are supposed to serve a higher cause. So he ends up a good bad good guy, or something like that. To my eyes, Salinger's real-world victory represents a moral defeat, but that's not the way Tykwer sees it. The sour taste of revenge is pretty sweet here. Grade: B- (Rated R for some sequences of violence and language.)