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The International has a big obstacle in its way right from the outset: How do you make banking interesting? Like making math fun, turning the world of money lending into something that’ll keep you awake for two hours, is a tall order. A Beautiful Mind made math exciting by using a lead character who is not only crazy, but experiences amusing hallucinations. The International tries to make banking more fun than watching paint dry, by turning the finance industry into one big, espionage ridden shoot-em-up. Though recently laid off Wallstreet workers looking for payback may take pleasure in seeing a few bank executives rubbed out, when the bullets aren’t flying you’re likely to find yourself wishing for that wet paint.
The problem is really the plot, which never makes a lot of sense. Clive Owen plays Louis, an Interpol agent investigating a vague and complicated banking organization called the IBBC. He’s after them because, they lend money to people. Some of their lendees are even bad people and apparently banks are supposed to do some sort of background check before opening a saving account? I’m not sure, but Clive Owen seems really pissed about it. Or maybe he’s just pissed that the bank keeps sending assassins to kill his friends. Ok, killing people is a crime so I understand why he’d take them down for that, except they wouldn’t have killed his friends if he hadn’t already been investigating them for, again, money lending. Last I checked, aren’t banks supposed to lend money? It’s not like the IBBC was selling bad mortgages. If there’s an accountant in the audience, see it and send me an e-mail straightening this whole thing out.
Luckily The International doesn’t wait long before it starts inventing excuses for Clive Owen to fire off a gun. When that’s happening, the movie is intense and visceral. In between those scenes, it’s full of artifice in which cliché, brain dead superiors scream that our heroes are out of time and must drop the case, even though they’re obviously getting massive results and doing everything right. But the movie needs tension when the bullets aren’t flying, so there’s a lot of talk about needless timelines which serve no other purpose than to be a ticking clock. Clive needs a reason to drive his car really fast. Gotta stop those bankers, before they make another loan!
At some point Naomi Watts gets into the mix as a New York investigator with a stake in what’s going on. She’s left out of the gunplay and I’m not entirely sure why she’s in the story at all. It doesn’t matter. There’s a fantastic shootout in the middle of the movie, set inside the Guggenheim museum. This is almost certainly the only thing you’ll remember when walking out of the movie, and since Naomi Watts isn’t involved, feel free to write her off. The Guggenheim sequence though, you’re not likely to forget. The International is worth sitting through if only to see it. It’s well shot yes, but spectacular mainly because of the setting. The museum is a series of never ending, spiraling, balcony ramps with beautiful glass artwork in the center. You can guess what happens when Clive Owen has to fight off an army of guys armed with machine guns. Big fun. That’s what.
Still, this a movie about banking. Shoehorn all the bullets you want into it, but it remains a plot driven by accountants. Maybe that’s relevant, with the economy in shambles because of the greed of banking executives like the ones Clive sets out to blow up in The International. I know I’d certainly like some revenge against those bastards. Unfortunately The International’s approach is stark, cold, and not one that lends itself to revenge. In the movie’s final moments the script takes a vicious left turn in an effort to strip away everything and leave us with only the emotional and raw. Yet even there, Tom Tykwer’s direction ensures that the film remains calculating and distant, as if instead of a movie we’re watching a monetary transaction between a filmmaker and his audience.