The International overdraws on financial espionage

Apart from America's repo men, probably the only people popping champagne corks over last fall's financial meltdown were the producers of The International. Doubtless the filmmakers wondered whether Clive Owen and Naomi Watts were big enough names to open their fair-to-middlin' espionage-type thriller about a nefarious global bank.

Then the markets crashed and megabanks hit up U.S. tax payers for bailout money, without curtailing their corporate fat-cat ways. With financial institutions emerging as the zeitgeist's villains of the moment, The International's follow-the-money suspense plot seems almost psychic. It's like the way the Three Mile Island nuclear accident happened 12 days after the release of The China Syndrome: You can't buy that kind of publicity.

Owen plays British Interpol agent Louis Salinger, who works with Eleanor Whitman (Watts) of the New York district attorney's office to make a case against the International Bank of Business and Credit, or IBBC. (Screenwriter Eric Singer fictionalizes the corrupt, real-life Bank of Credit and Commerce International.) For years Louis has been obsessed with bringing down the IBBC, but every potentially cooperative witness, from Berlin to Lyon to Rome, turns up dead.

Chief among the IBBC's misdeeds is a scheme to broker some missile guidance systems and foment military unrest in the Third World. In Italy, a well-connected expert walks the heroes (and the audience) through the bank's involvement in international arms "not to control the conflict, but to control the debt the conflict produces." The film's money quote, that the banking system intends to make us all slaves to debt, echoes the themes of documentaries like I.O.U.S.A., and serves up red meat to anyone who carries a credit card balance.

Despite pressing plenty of hot-button issues, The International still needs to balance the action movie column of the cinematic ledger. Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer proves technically proficient without resorting to stylistic overkill. The intriguing opening sequence features an assassination in plain sight. In a clever, potentially unfair touch, a New York surveillance scene just happens to wind past the branches of some of America's biggest banks – the implied guilt-by-association impossible to ignore.

The International clearly wants to broker a merger between the globe-trotting momentum of the Bourne movies and Michael Clayton's character-driven insights into how corporate skullduggery really works. Unfortunately, it's hard to sort out the important villains from the mere white-collar henchmen. Bad guys include a sinister Teutonic consultant (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a nondescript hit man, and the IBBC's immoral but deceptively ordinary CEO (Ulrich Thomsen). The plot advances either too modestly – the IBBC CEO reschedules his meeting with Louis! The cad! – or too loud, particularly at the preposterous, climactic fire fight at a New York landmark.

With his stubble and steely gaze, Owen's magnetism can elevate the high-strung hero clichés of any movie. It's a shame that the script gives so little substance to his and Watts' characters, and makes their moments of high-tech sleuthing sound like outtakes from "CSI." Louis' recurring bouts of tinnitus seem to echo his plagued conscience, but the idea doesn't really pan out. When Louis sticks his head in the sink with hopes of shaking a clue from his memory, it only evokes an identical shot in Huey Lewis' "I Want a New Drug" video.

The International seems like a perfectly adequate film to catch on disc – alas, the current financial crisis probably won't correct itself by the DVD release. It's the kind of thriller that undermines its slickness and verisimilitude with bursts of blatant silliness. You find yourself wondering whether every Fortune 500 company has its own death squad. Are hired killers on retainer? How are they listed in the annual report? Do Atlanta corporations like Coca-Cola or Home Depot have their own hit men? And, as a career-track, is being a corporate assassin recession-proof?