The Bourne Identity was released in the summer of 2002, and owing to both the changes in the real world post-September 11 as well as the commercial success of that film and its subsequent sequels, since then every spy thriller worth its salt has had to ground itself in greyer times. Even the James Bond franchise — notoriously stingy about embracing change — brought in Daniel Craig after Die Another Day, and OK’ed a grittier franchise reboot that returned to the secret agent’s roots.
It’s in this murkier, tough reality that The International unfolds, directed by German-born Tom Tykwer, who in 1999 set film school imaginations afire with the adrenalized import Run, Lola, Run. A moderately tough sell because of its ambition, complexity and the fact that almost all of its action is contained in a single mid-film burst, The International is a globe-trotting law-and-action hybrid that melds investigatory procedural maneuvering with some covert head-crowning.
Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is a disgraced Scotland Yard detective turned Interpol agent working from afar with Manhattan district attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) on a case involving one of the world’s most powerful banks, and the impending sale of missile guidance system technology. It looks like there’s a compelling claim to be tried in court, until both Louis’ partner and a potential witness separately turn up dead. Louis and Eleanor have their suspicions, but can’t prove anything. Spurned for direct information at their imposing Luxembourg headquarters — a perfect metaphorical stand-in for the evil machinations of this huge corporate machine — Louis starts working a separate evidentiary strand, a mysterious assassin (Brian O’Byrne) believed to be used by the International Bank of Business & Credit, with the hope of eventually using him to bring down the head of the company (Ulrich Thomsen).
With its skittery keyboard score and cabal of moneyed string-pullers, The International is a mega-corporate takedown thriller, a modern-day The Parallax View by way of Syriana and Michael Clayton. It skulks, in other words. Yet if the film, as conceived, is at its core a rendered judgment on the nature of man — with Louis having to grapple with the essential question of whether he should abandon his own ideals, and playing within the system, for the greater good of society — it takes a step back in its finale, afraid to let its protagonist fully, individually come to grips with the weight of his decisions.
In this sense, as penned by debut screenwriter Eric Singer, The International is a perfectly good and engrossing adult-level film that doesn’t really take a full, hearty swing at greatness. It toes the line, but in the end blinks. Overall, the dialogue is fairly unexceptional, but the performances are engaging and Tykwer’s staging is smart and crisp. There’s a fun “New York City moment” that fuels one close escape, when Eleanor and Louis honk their way out of a traffic jam, and Tykwer turns an incidental clandestine meeting into a fantastically over-the-top shootout at the Guggenheim’s main rotunda, amidst a massive video installation. The moment is more than a bit silly; upon reflection, it’s bat-shit crazy, plain and simple. It’s also the brawny set piece that pays for the rest of the chess match. So I didn’t mind. (Sony, R, 117 minutes)