Tom Twyker, the German-born director of 1998's cult hit Run Lola Run, helms The International with the intention of producing a film that is equal parts James Bond and political thought piece. The problem with trying to straddle two very different worlds is that you usually end up with a cramp in your groin and fall flat on your face. That's sort of what happens here.
Clive Owen stars as Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent who has dedicated his career to bringing down a corrupt bank, the "International Bank of Business and Credit" (apparently "The Bank" was already taken). The IBBC provides weapons financing for most of the world's thugs, including both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and any generic African revolution the screenwriters could conjure up. Apart from that, IBBC's use of snipers distinguishes it from Wells Fargo, WaMu, etc.
Salinger is the classic dedicated movie cop; he can fly through 20 time zones in 72 hours without so much as taking a nap or eating a sandwich. Owen, used to playing such exhausted heroes, is rock-solid in this role. Experience helps: He was an unshaven, haggard mess as the savior of humanity in Children of Men and as the surly defender of the prostitutes in Sin City. His 5 o'clock shadow deserves its own credit.
In fact, The International's main problem is that it crowds Owen's screen time with Naomi Watts, playing a New York district attorney who is shoe-horned into the plot to provide (I guess?) an American accent. Her character is feeble, useless and occasionally shrill. There is one halfhearted attempt to make her a damsel in distress, but even that didn't seem to work. Watts is a great actress, don't get me wrong. But, like slapping a cool spoiler on a BMW, some things just hurt more than they help.
The topical undercurrent of the film is that international weapons financing is ripe with greedy SOBs who think nothing of world peace and harmony (you don't say!). To illustrate just how nasty these guys are, the filmmakers turn the bad dudes' headquarters into a steel-grey monstrosity, remove all flowers and decorations from the walls and make sure it's a cloudy day whenever you visit. Apparently, leveraging the world's governments for billions does not require clutter, either, as every bank executive's office is devoid of papers, files, pens, etc. It's like Superman's ice lair at the North Pole, where e-mails and faxes are unnecessary because one can shape the world's events with mind-control.
Comic-book references aside, all this film really needed was a good trimming. Twyker has a skill for ratcheting up tension (as he proved in Run) but he uses his gifts far too sparingly. Just about every scene runs 3 to 5 minutes too long, and every compelling chase sequence or firefight is undermined by the film's annoying desire to prove its intelligence.
The International isn't nearly as smart as it thinks it is. But inside this 2-hour drama is a 90-minute thriller worth watching.
The International ★★✩✩✩
Starring: Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Directed by Tom Twyker. Rated R.