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Accounts payable The chase is on and bullets fly when banks attempt to get into the arms-dealing business

Hang loose. And sit tight. (It's incredible that they mean the same thing.)

In other words, have faith in "The International." It gets there.

I'll grant you that it actually takes more than an hour to turn into the brainy, kinetic thriller you were hoping it would be. During that hour, you're marking time while Clive Owen and Naomi Watts thrill-lessly try to keep some of the world's most nefarious banks from getting into the international arms business from their perch in the New York City D.A.'s office.

Why DO those banks want to take possession of missile guidance systems, anyway? Aside from being up to no good and causing guys to be knocked off on street corners, that is.

In one rather stunningly paranoid bit of dialogue, someone in the film explains just why it is that wars can be nothing but healthy for banks: "the real value of conflict is in the debt it creates . . . this is the very essence of the banking industry . . . to make all of us slaves to debt."

With America not yet reeling from being told our money was needed to bail out those terminally reluctant to part with theirs, "The International" had, with considerable prescience, seized on the banking industry for a new villain that the world's satanic fantasy mills hadn't exploited too much before. (I told you this movie is brainy.)

But, as David Letterman might say, that's not why you called.

Frankly, I was eager to see it because Tom Tykwer is one of the most interesting directors in the world, the inventor of that hyperkinetic thrill machine "Run Lola Run" and a whole bunch of films where big-film Euros were spent very wisely indeed.

And then, 80 minutes into "The International," you get what is, I submit, one of the more memorable shootouts in the history of movies: a modern O.K. Corral gunfight that happens to take place at the Guggenheim Museum. For about 10 minutes, Frank Lloyd Wright's controversial architectural masterwork -- or rather a simulation thereof -- is showered with bullets as Interpol investigator (and former Scotland Yarder) Clive Owen teams up with a couple of well-armed fellows from New York's finest to hold off a small squadron of Euro-trash armed with automatic weapons. Innocent bystanders on the museum's famous art-gawking ramp scream and wail as they discover that maybe this wasn't the best day for an amble through an art museum after all.

It's a fresh and gripping post-Hitchcockian thriller idea, and Tykwer directs it with most of the kinetic muscle we've long known he has.

It's a different movie after that, I tell you, and a pretty good one.

While that paranoid little analysis of the evils possible in international finance was an early indication that first time screenwriter Eric Warren Singer is on his own dark path in this movie, its resonant, exciting final hour proves it.

All manner of dire aphoristic eloquence starts sprouting from people and not just the film's resident wise man, either (that splendid German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, who looks and sounds like the man who was there when the creator confided one or two little design flaws in his creation while no one else was around to hear).

"The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense," he says. And "character is easier kept than recovered."

"Everyone is involved," says the Wise One, all over the world, all possible political complexions and all possible political sides. They all need corrupt banks "so they can operate in the black and gray latitudes."

The black and gray latitudes.

Roll that phrase around the empty theater of your noggin sometime -- the sudden verbal splice of color words with a word from fifth-grade geography to give us a description of the dark places our species has been compelled to visit since we oozed out of the slime.

And then hear Armin Mueller-Stahl in your mind's ear saying it.

This is not your average thriller, believe me.

Watts is average, true, but Owen continues to prove what a quiet disaster it has been for the American movie business that, at a crucial moment, it opted for affectless boys and forgot that certain kinds of fantasies need certifiable men of the Eastwood-Newman-Nicholson stamp.

What's happening now is they're either importing men from north of the English Channel -- Clive Owen, Liam Neeson -- or they're converting Boys to Men (Matt Damon in the Bourne films) by removing as much dialogue as possible and putting them into violent motion. The Steve McQueen solution, in other words.

Which just won't work with the likes of Josh Hartnett, Ashton Kutcher, etc.

Until Hollywood front-office types figure out they need to develop native Nebraskans, Kansans and Californians with as much gravitas and effortless machismo as Clive Owen and Liam Neeson, they're going to find themselves outsourcing the kind of movies this country perfected, if not invented.

In the meantime, here's a thriller where thrills and brains seem to arrive together, in style.




>Movie Review

"The International"
Review: Three stars (out of four)
Clive Owen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl in Tom Tykwer's brainy thriller about the bad things that happen when banks go into the international arms business. Rated R for violence and language. Opens Friday in area theaters.

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