Against the backdrop of the credit crunch and the stock market slump arrives a taut and tightly drawn conspiracy saga that speaks to just how badly the average Joe wants his bank manager to wind up getting tortured in the next Saw sequel. From German director Tom Tykwer, a man well practiced in ringing out every last drop of tension from a situation having delivered the likes of Run Lola Run, The International is a throwback to the paranoid thrillers of the '70s and '80s; a twisting, tumbling exercise in escalating tension that owes far more to Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer than James Bond or Jason Bourne.

Clive Owen, a man who looks like he was carved from solid rock, who narrowly missed out on the 007 job himself, stars here as Interpol agent Louis Salinger. With a shady past, a grudge to harbor, and a point to prove Salinger works with New York DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), scouring the globe chasing down leads and looking for witnesses they can potentially turn. At the other end of the trail, always elusive and just beyond their grasp, is the imaginatively titled International Bank of Business and Credit (as opposed to banks that don’t deal in business and credit?), neck deep in illegal arms sales and the international debit market. “If you control the debt, you control everything,” apparently.

Dressed like a funeral director sporting the cheery disposition of a funeral mourner, Salinger has made it his mission to crack the case and bring down the bank, despite his vendetta having cost him promotion, the respect of his colleagues, and as of ten minutes into the film, his partner’s life. But rather than morphing into some Jon McClane-esque one-man war machine, Tykwer keeps things grounded and on the level. There are no chases here, no explosions, and no quips (Salninger slapping a fading witness back to life with the line “don’t you fucking dare!” is the closest The International comes to a joke). When the violence does erupt in a blistering shootout in the Guggenheim, that evokes feelings of Michael Mann’s running shootout in Heat, it’s panicked, messy and wholly un-Hollywood. The rest of the film is patience, a lot of shoe leather and old-fashioned police work where a sleep-deprived guy combs his way through a file until he catches a break.

Owen, who never even approaches anything close to a smile, is suitably solid and pounds out the scripts kinks with sheer concentrated seriousness. Naomi Watts, who has built a career out of making the silly seem somehow credible and threatening has little to do here and is chiefly tasked with receiving bad news over the phone and looking shocked. A fine collection of Europe’s best character actors, including the likes of Ulrich Thomsen, Patrick Baladi, Armin Mueller-Stahl take the rolls of evil billionaires who sit around in rooms gloomily plotting the fate of us all.

The execution here is pitch perfect. What let’s the International down is simply a somewhat silly concept that arrived at just the right time to be serious, but just exactly the wrong time to be taken seriously. A killer bank? What’s next, a sequel about a killer department store? With unprecedented scrutiny of the financial industry and its movers and shakers by every opportunistic politician and news outlet going, the one thing that’s been made abundantly clear is that these guys are simply not that clever or calculating.

They’re not evil, they’re just greedy; too preoccupied with remolding the en suite bathroom in their office to scheme these schemes, and one thing they all universally lack it seems, is an eye for the big picture. But in these ADD, splice-a-second times where keeping the camera still seems to be nothing if not unfashionable, this is an old-school picture by a confident, assured helmer who doesn’t need to resort to trickery, and one its peers could do well to study.

Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen

Director: Tom Tykwer

Runtime: 118 Minutes

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Rating: R

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