The International: The Banker As Bad Guy

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Clive Owen in The International

Clive Owen, your standard-issue obsessed movie hero, fights for the length of The International to bring down the rogue bank IBBC, which has committed financial and war crimes on a vast scale. Don't waste your time, or your life, says bank biggie Armin Mueller-Stahl. "The system guarantees IBBC's safety — because everyone is involved." This corrupt bank will be protected, in other words, by all the other corrupt banks. And regulators. And politicians.

I thought of that line while watching the eight megabankers who showed up for Wednesday's House Financial Services Committee hearing. There was good theater in the spectacle of these potentates getting a congressional word-whipping as if they were the chastised bosses of the tobacco industry or a poisoned-peanut-butter factory. Real old-timers who tuned in to the charade might have gone dewy-eyed in reminiscence of Depression days. That's when bandits like Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were outlaw heroes, and the big villains were the bankers, who foreclosed on homes and farms, sent widows and orphans into the streets to beg and stoked a vivid genre of populist movies that forged in the mass audience's mind an indelible image of the pompous, rapacious plutocrat. Not since Shylock had moneylenders taken such a bad rap. Or money-nonlenders, which is what we have some of today. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

In two decades, the mantra about Wall Street has gone from "Greed is good" to "Banks are bad." The winds of a new Depression demand that that salutary trend of the movie '30s be revived. Oliver Stone, get to work. In the meantime, with brilliant bloody timing, here comes The International, a spy thriller with a theme worth mulling: that moneymen are the root of all evil.

"They're young. They're in love. They kill people." That was the ad line that Warren Beatty slapped on his 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde. In The International, written by Eric Warren Singer and directed by Tom Tykwer, the IBBC execs might say, "We're respected. We're everywhere. We kill people, bankroll terrorists and crush the hopes of all rugged idealists."

The latter would be Louis Salinger (Owen), an Interpol detective, ex–Scotland Yard, who at the start of the film is monitoring a clandestine meeting between one of his agents, Schumer (Ian Burfield), and a potential IBBC informant, whom the assignation has made very nervous. "You need to relax," the agent tells the informant, who replies, "I relax better tense." Adrenaline levels hardly matter to these two. In short order, they'll be killed: one in a "freak road accident" and the other, the Interpol agent, crumpling dead on the street. Salinger gets to see that in person.

Working with Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), an assistant D.A. who's been sleuthing the IBBC case from the New York City end, Salinger tries to corral the bank's CEO, Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), a dimpled smoothy who woos rebel chiefs on three continents with arms shipments for their would-be revolutions. Osama bin Laden needn't have buttonholed his Saudi relatives for al-Qaeda cash; he could have gone to Skarssen. As the banker tells an African insurgent, "The real value of a conflict, the true value, is the debt it creates." Hearing the outlines of this conspiracy, today's viewer feels almost nostalgic, since it's a nightmare scenario from the first years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Who knew, back in the recent, relatively soothing past, that the bankers could deliver a more lethal blow to the world economy without a shot being fired — just by bundling toxic mortgages?

Espionage dramas need their mysteries, and the first one here is: the international what? Has that adjective become a noun, like the continental or the cosmopolitan? Is the international a man or an anthem, a cartel or a cocktail?

All we can say for sure is that it's the first big Hollywood-style project from the director of Run Lola Run, the cunning micro-melodrama in which the same events are played in three variations and the entertained viewer is in and out in 76 minutes. If Tykwer's use of pixelated photos, split screens and cartooning in Lola gets you thinking that The International will offer a fizzily anarchic reimagination of the thriller genre, fuhggedaboutit. Running or stumbling a full two hours, this is a medium-IQ sample of spy dystopia — dour, sit-throughable and generically entertaining.

For audiences not fascinated by loopholes in banking regulations, The International offers some thriller wrinkles. To prod his memory for a sharper image of Schumer's last moments, Salinger sticks his head in a basin of ice. (It works!) There's a pretty cool demonstration of "trajectory analysis," in which Salinger and Whitman determine the angle of an assassin's bullet by poking sticks through a perforated wall, and a Holmesian moment when Salinger, examining the impression a man's shoe has left in some dirt, says, "I've seen that print before!"

The big production number is an extended kill scene set in New York City's Guggenheim Museum. IBBC has sent a squad of thugs to end the contract of the Consultant (Brían F. O'Byrne), formerly the bank's favorite hit man. The scene, which required the duplication in Munich of Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark gallery, lasts about 15 minutes and should keep all customers satisfied, as Salinger and the Consultant briefly team up to blast their way out. It makes fine use of Wright's spiraling strip, lacking only a climactic getaway via motorcycle, wheelchair or roller skates.

The challenge for The International — for any thriller that's waist-deep in cynicism — is to create a goal the hero can achieve, whether or not that makes any difference. In the movie world, Clive Owen can track, find and eliminate the bad guy. In the real world, a banker like Skarssen is just one bad guy; and a million more just like him, in London, Geneva, Hong Kong and lower Manhattan, are panting to take his place. They all know that, these days, banks don't even have to steal to increase their wealth. They take a congressional slap on the wrist, then pocket trillions from the Treasury.

If you take Tykwer's film even half seriously, it will be like one of those horror movies that you leave suspecting that the crazy, ingenious superkiller is waiting for you outside. A warning, then, to the susceptible: after seeing The International, don't dare go to an ATM.

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