About an hour into The International (though it felt like three) Clive Owen and Armin Mueller-Stahl are in New York’s Guggenheim Museum when all hell breaks loose. Owen is tracking an assassin handled by Mueller-Stahl, and the guys footing the killer’s bill don’t like that. So we’re treated to a ten-minute shootout more crisply directed than most action since John Woo’s first exit from Hong Kong. Video installations are blown to hell, Clive Owen nearly has his ear shot off and the skills that Tom Tykwer has occasionally brought to bear in other films roar to life.

Then the scene ends, leaving a perfect replica of the Guggenheim riddled with bullet holes and The International with the responsibility of following up a show-stopping sequence that barely belonged in the movie in the first place.

The film’s central argument is that multi-national banks are evil. (Or, in more proper movie villain voice, ‘eeeeeevill’.) That would have been mostly preposterous a year ago but is laughably silly in the economy of early 2009. Novice screenwriter Eric Singer’s script is a throwaway Dateline NBC story dressed up as Three Days of the Condor, an attempt to leverage the audience’s dread of credit card statements into a unified distrust of Big Business.

(And on easy marks, it works. “Mm-hmm!” agreed the guy next to me as the power of debt was explained.)

Even without the economic crisis that moots the script’s conceit, the film’s central bank ends up being dumb, rather than sinister. Controlled by an easygoing Swede who turns to his pre-teen son for counsel, the firm is attempting to push an arms deal that will be the gateway to controlling the flow of Chinese arms to the Middle East. Rather than enacting economic revenge on their enemies, the CEO and his hangers-on employ an assassin to dispose of malcontents. And, to ensure the plot has forward traction, said assassin has a physical defect that makes for easy identification.

Tracking the bank’s actions is Agent Salinger of Interpol (Clive Owen) and Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts)of the NYC District Attorney’s office. I can only surmise that Salinger is intentionally named after the famous recluse; he’s a total non-entity. Owen is good enough to breathe life into his shell of a character, but out of the context of this story Salinger doesn’t exist. It’s like he’s a replicant turned on right before the first scene and imbued with a Scotland Yard backstory, then turned off as soon as the credits roll.

Ironically Whitman has a fuller presence — she’s got a family, conflict at her job and a small moral decision to make — but she drops in and out of the story so frequently as to have no lasting effect. Far more realized is Brian F. O’Byrne as the assassin; his few minutes of action in the Guggenheim vividly draw him as practical, decisive and skilled.

With the exception of the Guggenheim sequence, Tykwer directs like he’s making plastic gadget packaging. His film is slick, superficial and free of any depth. Scenes of tension are scored with a theme that sounds like a ringtone and ominous glass and concrete architecture is seemingly meant to fill in character gaps left by the script.  

Stilted and graced with barely a pulse, The International only comes to life for that brief shootout, which feels like a tacked-on ploy to wake the audience from their stupor. It’s a chase movie with no momentum, a business thriller without even the acumen to run a lemonade stand, a paranoid delusion held by no one.

3.8 out of 10