The Debt Collectors
Financial thriller's pictures better than its plot
As otherwise casual visitors take cover behind whatever they can find from the automatic-weapon fire ripping through the air and shattering the video art installed on the walls, it's easy to forget where this calmly taut shoot-out is taking place. Interpol agent Louis Salinger (the insolently handsome Clive Owen, looking, as always, like he needs to shave, needs to sleep, and needs a drink) crouches behind the circular walkway's curved wall, with somebody else's blood staining his shirt and his own blood streaking his hair after a whizzing bullet just nicked his ear. He's joined by the hired assassin he tracked to this building. An unknown number of two-man shooter teams are trying to kill that assassin--his employers refer to him as the Consultant (Brian F. O'Byrne)--who calmly returns fire with deadly accuracy while Louis' hands shake when changing a magazine. Director Tom Tykwer deftly sculpts this spectacularly tense shoot-out in this glorious space, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's dizzying architectural marvels, such that you're only mindful of the escape difficulties it poses for Louis, the investigator that The International follows around Europe to New York. Only later does it dawn on you how cynically perfect it is that this gun battle takes place inside the Upper East Side's Guggenheim Museum.
Tykwer's thriller is serendipitiously suited for the post-bailout world, as its greedy criminal enterprise is an institution ready-made for cinematic villainy: a global bank. Sure, The International's bank 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 CEO bastards to hating all banking executives is a short one.
Just what the IBBC is doing is left a little hazy--something involving getting Chinese-made first-strike small arms to the Middle East through corporate arms dealers middle men, though that's just the iceberg's tip. Inspired by the 1990s Ponzi-scheme-like scandal involving the Pakistani-founded, Luxembourg-based Bank of Credit and Commerce International, The International views its IBBC less as a power player than an opportunistic debt controller: Control the debts incurred by governments, African rebel groups, terrorists, etc., and you make money no matter who is winning an armed conflict for pretty much as long as it goes on. It's an ingenious, high-finance take on the neighborhood boss who gets a piece of every action, only in this case the neighborhood is the entire world.
Hence, a bank might be willing to murder, launder money, broker deals for terrorists, and criminally influence people the world over, and potential whistle-blowers always end up dead. This is what Louis discovered when he worked at Scotland Yard, when a potential case against IBBC went to pot and he sought employment at Interpol, where he's working with New York district attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), since Manhattan is one of the seats of IBBC's money laundering enterprises. The investigation leads Louis and a NYC investigator Sam (Remy Auberjonois) to a potential witness in Berlin, but within 24 hours both Sam and the contact are dead--possibly killed.
Thus begins Louis and Eleanor's pursuit of IBBC's execs--such as the suave Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen) and fixer Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl)--from Berlin to Luxembourg, Milan to New York, and eventually to Istanbul. Tykwer tightly plots this cat and mouse game, aiming for a bit of The Day of the Jackal and The French Connection intensity in the smallest of leads. Though the script isn't quite the 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, and rarely does a thriller convey the stench of untouchability so effortlessly through settings alone.
That the The International doesn't quite illuminate what's at stake is only a minor flaw. Political crime thrillers typically have some clear endgame involved--Jackal's preventing the assassination of the president of France, Connection's stopping the flow of narcotics into New York--but in The International, the big picture is less clear. Yes, the IBBC kills political leaders and corporate traitors and threatens competitors and governments, but it all feels more like rich white people screwing each other over--which is, after all, a refreshing turn from the news-cycle norm. And then comes that shoot-out at the Guggenheim, and once again visually the movie succeeds where the plot fails. What's at stake in The International is wealth and how it's used. And when the control of wealth is threatened, people just trying to live their lives always get caught in the crossfire.