“The International” — Sleuther Not Quite World Class — 2 & ½ popcorns

popcornby Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Funny, how it works. When you’re hungry but too hurried to stop, you can’t help but pass one enticing food joint after the next. When love throws you a curve, every song intimately echoes your plight. And when it looks like the world’s evil bankers have absconded with the funds, a film like “The International” surfaces to feed our fears.

Coincidence or mysticism, there’s nothing like it to add currency to your movie-going experience. Right now the guys in charge of the big but ever-diminishing bucks have slotted in esteem two rungs beneath lawyer and barely one above used car salesman. Director Tom Tykwer’s film invites us to come boo and hiss them.

But the exercise soon changes in nature, going from analgesic release valve to yet another lesson about the average guy’s naiveté…meaning you and me. And before the action-packed cat-and-mouser is over, we sure wish we weren’t so heartily convinced of the film’s devastating pronouncements. Chalk up yet another crime against humanity.

Indeed, this is fiction. But as a major player for the bad side says to our alter-ego/crusading Interpol agent Louis Salinger, handsomely acted by Clive Owen, “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” In other words, all bets are off. The sinister values oft associated with Beelzebub have reared their heads.

Fair or not, Mr. Tykwer’s spinning of Eric Singer’s rousing tale makes for a much more profound evil vs. good experience than any dozen of those gargoyle-proliferated fables supplying a vent for our younger folk. Reads the tagline: “They control your money. They control your government. They control your life. And everybody pays.”

Yipes! This is going to be harder than we thought, Mr. Obama. They better not hurt my dog. Still, as bad as they are, Clive Owen, despite maybe some tax irregularities, proves a formidable choice to fight the good fight. I’ll give you this. No tricks. Just like us, he’s as pure as the driven snow. At seat’s edge, we can only hope he isn’t bamboozled.

It starts off with Lou and his partner following a lead. The IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit) is up to international no good. Then, as they say in the spy biz, Lou’s partner gets too close. Now altruistic Lou is mad. “Hey,” warns Manhattan D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts). “You know what taking it personal got you last time.”

Yep, on his dare she checked his file. One of those bad cases that won’t ever go away…at least not until you solve the next bit of skullduggery. Add Uhlrich Thomsen as slick IBBC CEO Jonas Skarssen and Armin Mueller-Stahl in a swell stint as his chief hitman handler and there you have the basic ingredients. Tykwer shakes well.

Unfortunately, while quite absorbing, “The International” lacks the genius of simplicity that sets apart the great works in this genre. There are at least three too many twists and perhaps two turns that baffle rather than dazzle. But there is decent finesse, and the awesome shoot-em-up scene in the Guggenheim is classical stuff.

True to its title, the panoply of locations adds scope and injects a story-propelling fluidity to the derring-do. But its most compelling attribute is a realism at the core of its unthinkable outrageousness. Anyone who has ever tried to arrange a simple luncheon among friends has to question the viability of conspiracy. Yet this is very convincing.

Clive Owen’s basic gumshoe, who cut his sleuthing teeth at Scotland Yard before advancing to Interpol, gets up early and often forgets to sleep. Sometimes he remembers to eat. Furrowed forehead and good intuition leading the way, his work-hard ethic makes him more Horatio Alger than James Bond. This worries his American colleague.

Surprisingly bereft of any sexual tension, Louis’s relationship with Miss Watts’s equally dedicated legal beagle supplies yet another layer of credibility. Assistant D.A. Whitman’s sisterly compatriot status is ensured via an obligatory peek into her oh-so-normal home, replete with child and yawning civilian spouse in T-shirt and five o’clock shadow.

This works to make the divulgences seem even more outlandish. Granted, after recent events we’ll never look at our banks the same way. Not that we believe our corner S & L has a staff of assassins at the ready if we don’t open a Christmas club. However, “The International” does beg the question, “What did you think their business was?”

Of course this is an extreme example (we hope), and perhaps a better film than it deserves to be by virtue of its timely paranoia. However, because we have been injured, insulted and abashed by some of the financial world’s deceit and cavalier chutzpah, the global muckrake portrayed in the “The International” can’t help but hit home.

“The International,” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Tom Tykwer and stars Clive Owen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Running time: 118 minutes

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