Electric cinematic moments bordering on true greatness are saddled in between long, talky stretches of lugubrious plotting in "The International," a severely uneven thriller that frustrates with its lack of consistency. Director Tom Tykwer (2006's "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
"), channeling but never matching the 1970s works of Alan J. Pakula (1974's "The Parallax View"), aims for a story of intrigue, but fails to give the viewer a reason to care, either about its lead characters or its tale of crooked undercover bank dealings. It looks terrific, but the material is awfully dry. Just when you've given up completely, Tykwer tosses a striking image or scene into the fray.
When the partner of Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) collapses and dies from an apparent heart attack, he suspectsand would be correct in his assumptionthat he was actually poisoned. The two of them were on assignment, investigating the illicit activities and secret weapons brokering of powerful Luxembourg bank IBBC. When a bank executive agrees to talk and is also found dead hours later in a mysterious car accident, it becomes all too obvious that things are far dirtier than imagined. With anyone a target who learns too much or is willing to give away secrets, Louis teams up with Manhattan-based assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) in an attempt to expose IBBC and take them down. With even the CIA in on it, though, are they merely headed toward a dead end?
"The International" is one of those globe-trotting suspensers where characters seemingly teleport from one country to the next in their pursuit of justice. Maybe "suspenser" is too strong a word, since tension levels in the audience don't arrive until the end of the second act. Before this, the film is a picturesque bore that might lull some to sleep from keen disinterest. Louis Salinger and Eleanor Whitman mean well, but they are nothing but pawns in the screenplay by Eric Warren Singer. Underdeveloped, straight-faced and humorless, the two of them do not make for engaging protagonists. The bad guys working for IBBC are a dark, well-dressed type, none but veteran Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) growing beyond empty faces. Worst of all, director Tom Tykwer fails to give the viewer a reason to put a stake in the outcome.
Flashes of tangible inspiration aid in keeping things afloat, if not out and out saving the picture as a whole. A complex set-piece arriving at the 75-minute mark depicting a violent shoot-out inside New York City's Guggenheim Museum is taut, edgy and visually dazzling, suggesting what could have been were the rest of the film on that same level. A climactic scene involving a chase amidst the exotic rooftops and walkways of Istanbul is also superbly shot by cinematographer Frank Griebe, even if it leads to the sort of denouement that doesn't believably solve anything so much as act as an excuse to cue the end credits. Also notable is the unconventional music score by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer; it is memorably eerie, and would be more ideal for a horror film. Still, the sounds help to keep things moving even when what is onscreen appears to be in permanent pause.
Slick but undeniably meandering, "The International" loses its way and can never quite stay on the right trajectory. Clive Owen (2007's "Shoot 'Em Up
") is suave even when looking tired, but why he puts on a strange accent sounding faintly Irish is anyone's guess. As for Naomi Watts (2008's "Funny Games
"), it is a mystery why she agreed to play the nothing role of Eleanor; as far as can be deciphered, her character makes no impact on the story, and she finally just drifts out of the frame. Dialogue clunkers are numerous, with characters speaking in metaphors and chestnut quotations. "There's a difference between truth and fiction; fiction has to make sense" might sound good, but no one would ever say it. Meanwhile, "sometimes a man can meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it," is uttered not once, but twice. For every burst of energy or eye-catching visualan aerial shot of a crowd in disarray comes to mindthe film doubly shoots itself in the foot with listless pacing and dreary thematics. Ultimately, "The International" isn't worth the effort to get to the good stuff.