Action thrillers are inherently preposterous, of course, but there’s a limit to what we’ll swallow. Tom Tykwer’s glossy-yet-moribund The International crosses that line and then some. It’s no big spoiler to reveal, as novice screenwriter Eric Warren Singer immediately and shamelessly does, that the film’s diabolical, vaguely omnipotent, world-domination-seeking antagonist is ... a bank. A financial institution. A bunch of men and women who loan money and collect debt. Yes, according to this movie, there is no entity more brilliant, more fiendish, more well-nigh unstoppable than the very same folks who engineered both their own demise (save for emergency taxpayer bailout) and a worldwide recession/depression by shrewdly handing out billions of dollars with very little statistical likelihood of ever being repaid. Mwa. Ha. Ha. Ha. Imagine, if you will, a James Bond flick in which the megalomaniacal villain turns out to be a 2-month-old chimp suffering from the lower-primate equivalent of Down Syndrome.
For plucky, dogged heroes, meanwhile, imagine a couple of cardboard standees. Clive Owen plays Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent determined to bring down the evil Luxembourg-based IBBC. (This stands for International Bank of Business and Credit, about as suave a name as Local Department Store of Retail and Merchandise.) Working with him, for reasons that the script spells out in a rush of incomprehensible verbiage you’ll instantly forget, is Manhattan Assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts). Their dual investigation is already well underway as the film begins—we first see Salinger’s partner killed by an unseen assassin after meeting with a high-ranking IBBC exec who’s ready to flip—and proceeds to take them all over the globe, with each new location helpfully identified by both city and country: “Berlin, Germany.” However photogenic the locale, however, Salinger and Whitman remain generic, wholly uninteresting functionaries on a mission that couldn’t possibly be more impersonal.
For most of its running time, The International amounts to little more than a demonstration of how badly two terrific actors can founder when they’re given absolutely nothing to play. Owen, whose baritone intensity has been electrifying in films like Closer and Inside Man, is here reduced to simply shouting every line of dialogue, in the futile hope that making it louder will somehow render it less banal. Watts, for her part, seems to be striving to reproduce the deadly combination of bad actress/lame script that she parodied early in Mulholland Drive, except that this time there’s no spellbinding reinterpretation to retroactively justify the woodenness. Nor does Singer’s Byzantine plot somehow redeem his empty characters—for all the film’s strenuous efforts to replicate the paranoid vibe of ’70s classics like The Parallax View, it never achieves anything more than routine intrigue and a dose of suddenly fashionable pessimism.
Well, with one exception. But it’s a doozy. Though The International ultimately squanders its sole potentially compelling twist—IBBC’s repeated use of the same deadly assassin (Brían F. O’Byrne), whose trail Salinger and Whitman eventually locate—this particular subplot does culminate in a genuinely exciting multiway gunfight set in the spiralling rotunda of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Granted, this set piece is notable mostly for the sheer quantity of high-caliber bullets fired, which must set a new record for a movie not made in Hong Kong. But it’s also the only time, apart from the reasonably tense opening sequence, that you can recognize the presence of director Tom Tykwer, who’s usually a dazzling stylist (Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), but spends most of The International on big-budget autopilot. Like Owen and Watts, he was soundly foiled by the film’s true omnipotent villain: its hackneyed script.