Tom Tykwer is a director whose name shouldn't really raise my hopes, thought it always does. The reason it always does is the director's 1998 masterpiece Run Lola Run, one of the finest and most innovative movies of the 1990s. Whereas the reason it shouldn't is that Tykwer hasn't really made anything good since then. In this decade, his best films have been Heaven, a nearly-successful stab at filming one of Krzysztof Kieśloswki's last screenplays, and one of the middle-tier Paris, je t'aime shorts. His worst films have been the fascinating, hugely misguided Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and the just-plain-clumsy The Princess and the Warrior. None of it the stuff that sterling reputations are made of.

Happier I'd been if that thought had come to me before I saw The International, Tykwer's new thriller about a corrupt multi-national bank and the brave INTERPOL agent risking everything to stop it. Then perhaps I wouldn't have been quite so disappointed in the film, which adds a new set of adjectives to Tykwer's lexicon: perfunctory, muddled, dull. There are dashes of style here and there that almost threaten to make the movie halfway worthwhile, but the director seems only a little interested in pursuing anything visually interesting, and not interested at all in helping to prop up Eric Warren Singer's underbaked screenplay, which explains what's going on in sufficient detail that you can imagine the rest, though it does essentially nothing else.

Without giving too much away, there's this fellow named Louis Sallinger (Clive Owen), who joined INTERPOL after a Dark Event In His Past at Scotland Yard. He's working with a New York Assistant DA named Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) to crack the mysterious goings-on of the International Bank of Business and Commerce, one of the largest private banks in the world, with its nefarious fingers in all sorts of Ee-vil Capitalist pies; of particular concern to our heroes is a plot to provide various Middle Eastern countries with limited-range missiles. But no mere weapons seller is this IBBC - their true goal, we learn fairly early, is to create wars in the world so that they can control the debt of the countries involved. As villainous plots go, this one is kind of esoteric, and steepd in vaguely-expressed economic theory that holds up pretty much just so far as you're willing to assume that it is going to have bad ramifications and must be stopped. Really, though, it kind of feels like Singer didn't know himself what the hell is happening:

Step 1: Control Syria and Iran's war debt
Step 2:

That's not really the problem that wrecks The International, though it doesn't help. A much, much bigger flaw is the half-assed way in which Sallinger and Whitmore are presented. Look, we don't go to these kinds of movies for elaborate characterisation, but it's still hard to recall a recent political thriller with this kind of ambition and scope with protagonists as malformed as these. It would be one thing entirely if they were both nothing but ciphers. That could, and has, worked - the plot becomes about the plot itself, and the characters are cogs. Many fine procedurals operate on that principal. And too, the film could work if the characters were fleshed out and given great depth - then the film is a psychological study of how the quest for justice grinds down the just.

Instead of that, we get little pipped-in details that make it seem like Sallinger and Whitmore have very rich, active lives, without actually being rich or active in any way. Whitmore in particular is a completely botched role: I know that she is married, and worries about job security, but she is otherwise a blank slate, and Watts cannot do a damn thing with the character as a result (the latest in an increasing line of wickedly under-written characters for Watts to thrash about inside of fruitlessly). Sallinger, a much larger presence in the film, at least has some definite backstory to him, but it's presented artlessly, and without Owen's smoldering to give the illusion of a personality, the character would have no chance of popping off the page.

I don't blame Tykwer for essentially checking out of this project, easily the most impersonal thing he's ever made. There's one conceptually fantastic action setpiece in the Guggenheim that is fairly exciting, though as it goes on the editing gets a bit too elliptical for its own good and we start to lose track of where characters are in relationship to each other. In addition, there are a solid dozen tremendously striking images scattered thoughout the film, every one of them the same basic type: an establishing shot of an individual dwarfed by some institutional edifice or another. This is unbeatable as a shorthand for the film's theme of faceless entities snuffing out human life, but it is the only particularly enlightening stylistic choice made in the whole of the movie; other than this, Tykwer is content to let the film unspool at an erratic pace (stately and slow except for a few places when allofasudden everythinghappensatonce), using the camera to no effect whatsoever, and if not for the film's unusually long takes (unusual for a thriller in the '00s, I should say), it would be completely undistinguished.

The film's release was miraculously timed: there really hasn't ever been a better moment to tell a story about a bank made up of liquid evil trying to destroy the world in search of greater profits. It is a damnable pity that The International should so thoroughly waste its unique opportunity, then. It is a slack, mirthless film with little or nothing to recommend it besides the evergreen joy of watching Clive Owen be a badass; as far as brainy political thrillers go, however, it's better by far to stick with those which actually have something like a brain, and even more importantly, a beating heart.