Far more political procedural than a punchy action thriller, "The International" is a timely yet somewhat cold drama trying to bring a relaxed European sensibility to a Hollywood genre staple. The result is exquisitely produced but mechanical and off-base in intent and execution.
A decade ago director Tom Tykwer helped put German commercial cinema and actress Franka Potente on the map with the multiple timeline thriller "Run Lola Run". It introduced an energetic, tension-fueled editing/shooting style that has dominated the action genre the past few years (most notably in the 'Bourne' franchise) - trading off clarity, scope and ambition for visceral gritty intensity.
Tykwer takes the complete opposite approach here with a film that, with one notable exception, only displays glimmers of that same intensity. Ambitious in scope, "The International" delivers a servicable albeit convoluted tale of an undercover investigation aiming to bring down an international banking giant with shady plans involving a pending major arms deal.
In one of the film's best scenes, the characters discuss the bank's motives and come to the interesting conclusion that by controlling debt they essentially have their hands in everything from the Government to the police to the corporations. Not only is it timely, but as explained it becomes one of the more convincing world domination-style schemes posited in these sorts of films, no doubt helped by basing the bank off a real-life one in Pakistan during the 70's and 80's. Think 'This act of terrorism, brought to you by Citibank'.
Its cold, stand-offish, almost entirely dialogue driven approach however seems more in line with period dramas than contemporary thrillers. Older viewers won't mind, but certainly anyone expecting the kind of pacy, dumb and often insulting escapism that dominated recent thrillers like "Taken" will find themselves endlessly fidgeting throughout much of the film and angered by a somewhat open-ended and hasty conclusion.
World travelers, or those who dream of becoming them, will adore the visuals which make fantastic use of its numerous locations including Istanbul, Milan, Berlin, Luxembourg, New York City and the Italian lakes. Scenes on the ground are just showy enough to establish flavor without deliberately resembling a tourism commercial. As thrillers go its one of the best looking ones you'll find.
As acting goes however it's an entirely different story. Saddled with so much exposition and narrative to plunge through, there's little to no characterization on display anywhere apart from staple roles like Clive Owen's relentless burned out Interpol agent who varies between angry and seething. Naomi Watts delivers one of her weakest performances to date as an utterly uninteresting New York assistant D.A. who seems to have a surprising amount of access to European crime scenes.
It's saying something when the bad guys are the more compelling characters, notably Armin Mueller-Stahl as the bank's former-Stasi enforcer. His interrogation scene late in the film where his world-weariness manages to manifest in his fascinating body language reminds you that film's should have actual acting and emoting going on. Until that point, everyone else seems to have been merely talking mouthpieces moving us from one plot point to the next.
Though there's a few decent suspense set pieces (an assassination and foot chase for the killer for example), the one big action set piece of the film is astonishing if overly long. Over the course of fourteen minutes, a surveillance operation turned machine gun fight takes a perfect replica of the famed multi-story rotunda of New York's Guggenheim museum and rips it to shreds. It's a breathless and astonishing piece, not only for watching an architectural marvel be turned into Swiss cheese, but the believable grittiness of the fighting (very bloody and the hero gets visibly injured).
Ultimately the film will be quickly forgotten, one of those so-so thrillers that many will simply dismiss as too inane or tedious as there's simply too little in the way of emotional investment to draw us in. Even its most ardent supporters would have a hard time disagreeing that had it spent more time fleshing out the characters and added another action set piece or two, it could've proven much stronger.
Still, I have a lot of respect for filmmakers like Tykwer who don't pander, and there's a somewhat goofy charm to its sincerity. The central conceit is a solid idea, the visuals and production values are outstanding, and the action when it gets going is excellent. It is a film however that demands both a certain level of patience and suspension of disbelief, think of it as a kind of guilty pleasure for those who live (or would like to live) a business class lifestyle.