"The International" is equal parts globe-trotting thriller and architecture porn, as perfectly crystallized by its mind-blowing central set piece: a seemingly endless shootout at the Guggenheim Museum.
The back story of how Tom Tykwer and Co. shot it is about as complicated as the plot of the film itself. The scene is so elaborate and ambitious — and stands so totally apart from everything else that happens — it's enough to make you wonder whether the earliest nugget of Eric Warren Singer's script began with the idea: "Hey, this sounds crazy, but what if we staged a big, bloody shootout along Frank Lloyd Wright's famously pristine, white ramps?"
Oh yes, and other events take place during "The International," but none that will leave you with quite the same breathless impression. Tykwer, the German director who wowed audiences a decade ago with his pulsating, wildly inventive "Run, Lola, Run," once again keeps the action moving fluidly in this, his largest film to date. But there's also an undercurrent of gritty substance, a tortured tone that harkens to the action dramas of the 1970s.
A sexily rumpled Clive Owen stars as Interpol agent Louis Salinger. A mixture of obsessiveness and self-destruction, the former Scotland Yard detective is now investigating some potentially shady dealings at one of the world's most powerful banks. Illegal arms deals, power brokering, money laundering — you name it, and the bank probably has got its tentacles in it. (Singer says his story was inspired by the real-life scandalous collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commercial International in the 1990s.)
When one of Salinger's undercover associates gets murdered in Berlin while on the case at the film's suspenseful start, Salinger teams up with Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (a strangely stiff Naomi Watts) to uncover not just that killing but the bank's myriad crimes. Stops along the way include Milan, Lyon and Istanbul.
Character development is a bit lacking — truly, Watts gets little more to do that make a few phone calls and run around at Owen's side — but Owen engages in one great battle of wits with the formidable Armin Mueller-Stahl as the bank's shadowy adviser. Brian F. O'Byrne is intimidating in a quieter, creepier way in just a few scenes as an assassin known only as The Consultant.
With its themes of worldwide Machiavellianism and corporate corruption, "The International" seems to have more on its mind than the average thriller coming out this time of year, but as shot by cinematographer Frank Griebe, it's also a feast for the eyes — especially if you're a fan of modern design. Besides the iconic Guggenheim, the IBBC's Luxembourg headquarters is an impressively icy fortress, and the home of the bank's evasive, sleekly dressed president (Ulrich Thomsen) is a wood-and-glass box on stilts perched precariously on a hillside.
The visual metaphor melds nicely with the meat of the movie, creating a thriller of unexpected substance to go along with its style.
"The International," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for some sequences of violence and language. Running time: 118 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.