Two men are meeting in the car park of Berlin airport, an Interpol agent and his contact who is threatening to spill the beans on the IBBC, the bank he works for. The contact is making no promises, but this could be the break the agent was looking for, and as he gets out of the car he is passed by a man he doesn't notice, but may have something to do with the way he reaches the side of the road to cross to meet his partner, Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), when he suddenly throws up and collapses. Salinger rushes through the traffic to reach him, but is clipped by a passing truck: he'll be fine, but his friend is not so lucky...
Although The International might have seemed contemporary when it was released, with the world's largest banks coming under scrutiny for their dodgy dealings that had plunged the world into a recession, this was pure coincidence, for what it actually resembled was one of those, well, international spy thrillers that happened along during the sixties, the sort of thing Alfred Hitchcock directed in Torn Curtain and Topaz. Except this was shot through with the paranoia of a seventies conspiracy thriller, a Three Days of the Condor or Parallax View type of afffair, that offered a bleaker edge.
Still, you do feel that this could have been made a leaner experience, as co-star Naomi Watts, playing Salinger's New York associate Eleanor Whitman, is truly in a disposable role, and if she wasn't in the film at all then you wouldn't have noticed her absence. It's as if the producers wanted more star power and parachuted Watts into the plot, when her sole purpose is to act as the character who asks questions of the hero in an effort to clear up the convolutions of the plot. Owen, on the other hand, is in his element, playing the rumpled crusader for justice he may never secure, sporting a permanent three-day growth of beard and doggedly pursuing the bad guys.
This might have been rather dry if it were not for a few pretty decent setpieces that raise the excitement, if not to riproaring levels, then at least to a point where you can believe there is a lot at stake for Salinger and his cohorts. There's an assassination which introduces a trick that the film uses as if it's going out of fashion, where we think one character has killed another only to find out seconds later that it is another, hitherto unseen character who has done the shooting: by the third time this occurs, you wonder if writer Eric Warren Singer couldn't have come up with a better way of springing surprise death on us.
Most of his attentions appear to have gone on to the twists and turns of the conspiracy, which threatens to go all Danny Casolaro in the manner it makes connections between such a variety of authorities, but crucially remains convincing within the bounds of the story. This is most strongly felt in the way that Salinger ends up having to satisfy nobody but himself in his search for the truth, so despite uncovering the bank's methods of cashing in on wars throughout the world by actually engaging in arms deals as well as ensuring they can capitalise on the debt that erupts from the situation, he cannot do anything useful to stop them because the influence is too wide-ranging for one man to bring them to their knees. This makes a nice change from the kind of supermen who routinely can do such a thing in thrillers like this, but if that doesn't capture your attention, watch for the shootout at the Guggenheim as an illustration of keeping the audience's interest alive in a murky plot.