As otherwise casual visitors of the Upper East Side's Guggenheim Museum take cover from the automatic weapons fire ripping through the air and shattering the video art installed on the walls, it's easy to forget where this calmly taut shootout is taking place. Interpol agent Louis Salinger (the insolently handsome Clive Owen) crouches behind the circular walkway's curved wall, with somebody else's blood staining his shirt and his own blood streaking his hair. An assassin calmly returns fire with deadly accuracy, while Salinger's hands shake so badly he has trouble reloading. Director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) sculpts this spectacularly tense shootout so deftly that you're engrossed in the difficulties it poses for Salinger. Only later does it dawn on you how cynically perfect it is that this gun battle takes place inside one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most dizzying architectural marvels.
Tykwer's thriller is serendipitously suited for the post-bailout world, as the film's antagonist is an institution ready-made for cinematic villainy: a global bank. Sure, The International's heavy is the Luxembourg-based International Bank of Business and Credit ' a name that cheekily captures the truncheon glibness of business-speak ' but 2009 audiences are surely ready to accept creditors as the root of all evil. The walk from loathing heartless AIG CEOs to hissing at all banking executives is a short one.
Just what the IBBC is up to in the film is left a little hazy ' something involving getting small arms to the Middle East through corporate arms dealers. Inspired by the real-life 1990s fraud scandal involving the Pakistan-founded, Luxembourg-based Bank of Credit and Commerce International, The International views its IBBC less as a power player than an opportunistic warlord: Manage the debts incurred by governments, African rebel groups, terrorists, etc., and you make money no matter who is winning.
Hence, a bank might be willing to murder, launder money, broker deals for terrorists and criminally influence people the world over. Needless to say, potential whistleblowers tend to turn up dead. That's what Salinger discovers, and the investigation leads him and fellow agent Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) from Berlin to Luxembourg, Milan to New York, and eventually to Istanbul.
Tykwer plots this cat-and-mouse game tightly, aiming for a bit of The Day of the Jackal's assassination endgame and The French Connection's intense chase scenes. Though the script by first-timer Eric Singer is no match for either of those '70s titans, Tykwer and his longtime cinematographer Frank Griebe visually outdo them both. The International impressively uses architecture as tone sculpture, primarily setting its action in the clean affluence of polished steel, clear glass and poured concrete modernism. Rarely does a thriller convey such an effortless stench of untouchability.
A minor flaw lies within the film's inability to express what's at stake. Yes, the IBBC kills political leaders and corporate traitors and threatens competitors and governments, but it just feels like so many rich white people screwing each other over. Then comes that shootout at the Guggenheim and once again, the movie succeeds merely on a visual level. The plot, like the museum's visitors, is caught in the crossfire.