If they can afford to see it in theaters, audiences may enjoy watching bankers getting doggedly pursued and sometimes even pumped full of lead in the new thriller “The International.” The movie couldn't have come out at a better time, but whether intentional or not, the timeliness of the plot is the only showy thing about it. Even the lead, Clive Owen, scruffy and bedraggled after years of sleepless nights in pursuit of a rogue bank, contains himself as usual, and the film follows suit. This is a working-class movie, whose determined heroes are after the diabolical big shots who are not getting enough tomatoes thrown at them in the media. With a simple, excellent MacGuffin wound tightly at its core, it offers the kind of classic suspense setups Hitchcock would appreciate, an enjoyable mystery to while away a wintry afternoon with.
The story begins with a murder. An agent for an international law enforcement organization is meeting with a high-level contact from an enormous European bank called the IBBC, who plans to spill the beans about its nefarious dealings. Upon their departure, the agent drops dead in front of his partner, Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), who later discovers that the cause was not natural as suspected by police. From these quickly paced opening scenes, “The International” smoothly inserts its hooks. Salinger, a former Interpol agent, and his American partner, Eleanor (Naomi Watts), are in danger, and the film smartly nags at the reason while keeping us on edge for the safety of our two heroes.
“The International” is directed by Tom Tykwer, but those expecting to get the same kinetic rush found in “Run Lola Run” may be disappointed. Tykwer strikes a more measured pace this time, taking time to develop characters rather than shoot them around his story like pinballs. His visual style has been modified as well. It isn't famed Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, but it offers lessons to other international thrillers.
For one, the movie scolds those who insist on making scene transitions that look like intros to “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” When it comes to globetrotting, less is more, a fact “The International” applies to the relief of anyone tired of the same second unit establishing shots cut at hyper speed used by most similar action movies. When Salinger arrives in New York, hot on the trail of the IBBC's favorite hit man, it's into JFK and over the highway like the rest of us. Neighborhoods and city squares are backdrops, not chances to show off zooms and quick pans. A mountainside tunnel near Milan isn't window dressing but a creepy setting for a gruesome death.
Though “The International” offers some incisive commentary on current affairs, it also has a knack for action, especially during its centerpiece, a show-stopping shootout staged in New York's Guggenheim Museum rotunda. It's difficult to find new twists in set pieces like this, and the bullets fly a little too freely for belief, but the sequence manages to squeeze in enough inventive action for the entire film into about 15 minutes.
From its description “The International” may sound like a poor man's “Bourne Identity,” but differences are clear once it gets under way. Owen plays Louis Salinger for determination and integrity, but he's also hopelessly outgunned. The script, written by Eric Warren Singer, never leaves any doubt how futile is his quest to take down a bank relied on by the shadowy elements of governments and criminal organizations all over the world.
Salinger is the one doing the chasing, but you never feel his quarry is particularly concerned about being caught. The supporting cast is satisfactorily sleazy, with veteran character actor Armin Mueller-Stahl and a squinty-eyed Ulrich Thomsen doing the honors as loathsome Europeans plotting capitalist mischief.
“The International” is out during a time when many filmgoers are thinking about the Oscars, but it will not likely be up for many awards next year. Neither is it one of the forgotten February movies dumped on multiplexes every winter. Relatively smart and suspenseful with solid acting from a likeable cast and steady direction, it easily wins best picture of the season so far. (R) 118 min. HHHHI S