The International 

If nothing else, you've got to admire the foresight of a movie in which the bad guy is a bank.

"The International" is a throwback to the paranoia-rich thrillers of the 1970s, but whereas those earlier films wallowed in the antigovernment conspiracy-mongering of their day, this newer model is topical enough to turn banking into villainy. Sadly, it is one of the few high points in a film largely bankrupt of originality.

With its leaden pace and bland storytelling, "The International" is a particular disappointment coming from Tom Tykwer, the German director behind "Run, Lola, Run." For whatever reason, Tykwer has stifled the cinematic pyrotechnics that made his 1998 flick such a dazzler. Instead, "The International" is ponderous and plodding, trudging onward as if weighted down by a leg brace "? an item, by the way, that figures prominently in the tortuously contrived screenplay.

Clive Owen ("Shoot 'Em Up") stars as Louis Salinger, a rumpled, glowering Interpol agent who has made it his life's mission to expose the Luxembourg-based International Bank of Business and Credit. With its tentacles extending into everything from arms dealing to spurring revolutions in Third World countries, the IBBC is intent on world domination by seeking control of global debt.

In the opening minutes, Salinger's partner is killed just as the investigators make contact with a potential IBBC informant who, in turn, dies shortly afterward in a freak car accident. Clearly, this bank isn't one of those wimpy financial institutions squawking for bailout money. Who needs to fiddle with mortgage-backed securities when you've got assassins at your disposal?

Vowing to bring down the IBBC, Salinger teams up with New York assistant district attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts, "Funny Games"). Watts is a gifted actress, but why she agreed to take on this underwritten, unbelievable and inconsequential role is one of the movie's inadvertently compelling mysteries. For a district prosecutor, Whitman apparently has an ungodly amount of frequent-flier miles, and so she joins Salinger in jetting around the world "? Berlin to Milan, France to Istanbul "? trying to unravel a Byzantine conspiracy that entails car chases, political assassination and a wizened IBBC consultant (Armin Mueller-Stahl, "Eastern Promises") full of pithy sayings.

 "The International" is knee-deep in pith. First-time screenwriter Eric Singer deserves props for ambition, but he stuffs his characters full of groan-inducing aphorisms. "You must think like a man of action and act like a man of thought," one IBBC bad guy advises his young son "? and that's just about playing chess. Just imagine what the important dialogue is like.

The film does boast a marvelous set piece: a bloody shootout situated around the circular ramp of New York's Guggenheim Museum. The scene is a blood-spattered, glass-smashing knockout, and one of the few instances when "The International" is awake enough to deliver the goods.

"?Phil Bacharach

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