“The Bank” is not only sleek and terrific to look at, it’s an action film with a heart. It cares about things like the global economy, rages over the evil-doings of corrupt conglomerates and sheds tears over the collapse of Third World governments. No wonder the lead character, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (and it should be noted that his namesake novelist, J.D., was famed for sighing over the deplorable state of mankind), looks so tired all the time. This is a man who, throughout the film, never stops carrying the weight of the world on his brawny shoulders. His colleagues sometimes tell him to relax, but their words fall on deaf ears. He’s out to nail a seriously bad multinational bank based in Luxembourg, which goes by the rather suspiciously anonymous name of IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit). Who has time to relax?
Directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) there’s a broad, turgid river of naivete running through “The Bank” (international title: “The International”) that drenches every one of the characters with the exception of Armin Mueller-Stahl (“Eastern Promises”) as Wilhelm Wexler, the financier/powermonger whose backlog of evil is so intricate and extensive he’s forgotten most of the details.
Wexler alone remains crisply dry, free from the sweaty, justice-for-all hangups that plague our hero Louis (Clive Owen). Looking benevolent and terrifically bored, Wexler’s trademark gesture is a slight shrug of the shoulders as if to say he really can’t be bothered. Louis on the other hand, is always hot and bothered. He’s even too preoccupied to get anything going with the gorgeous Manhattan attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), who’s also trying to crack down on IBBC. Together, they fly to enviable and exotic destinations such as Berlin, Milan and Istanbul in what appears to be first class (just think of what this does to their mileage plans), but they never so much as clink champagne glasses. Instead, they end up studying dossiers with the overhead lamp turned on to max. Anyone who can sit in first class next to Naomi Watts with his nose in a dossier deserves several medals.
Actually, concentrated workaholism is Owen’s forte. After about a decade of undistinguished roles he has morphed into a scruffy, stubbly, British action hero, who, unlike James Bond, could use a couple more hours at the gym. Not that he cares about this sort of thing — Owen’s characters put global problems first and frivolity (looking good, cavorting with babes) way at the bottom of the agenda.
Owen’s heroes never get the girl — even in “Closer” as Julia Roberts’ husband, he was never her favorite guy — and in the excellent “Children of Men,” girls were beside the point as he gave his all to saving what was left of humanity in a nightmarish, apocalyptic world. Accordingly, Louis is a man so concerned with larger issues that personal needs, least of all his own, are perpetually brushed aside. That he manages to look incredibly sexy without caring a rat’s arse whether he’s sexy or not is a feat Owen has polished to an art form and not something Jude Law or Hugh Grant can pull off (they, after all, have a ladies’ man reputation to uphold). But you can tell it’s grueling, uphill work.
In “The Bank,” Louis comes off as such a dedicated professional everything else about him — his past, whether or not he has a family etc., is rendered insignificant. Every so often an Interpol colleague or his boss admonishes him that he’s “not in Scotland Yard anymore.” So apparently he once worked there. Why or how he left is never mentioned.
A little more personal background would have served both Louis and the film. What’s in it for him anyway or, more to the point, what does this guy do on his days off? If work is Louis’ way of exorcising inner demons (an increasingly fashionable motive in the cinematic spy world), he’s keeping this information strictly under wraps. Louis is his own contradiction — after chasing after weasely financiers and a trail of bad money all over the globe, Louis still can’t seem to figure out that good wins over bad only about 1.5 percent of the time. Those mileage points can hardly be a compensation.