Hollywood has brought to the big screen evil law firms, evil corporations, and evil governments. Add a new boogey-entity to the mix: the evil bank. This isn't the kind of "bad bank" being discussed in Washington to soak up troubled assets of financial institutions. This is a truly awful institution, one that kills as easily as it loans (scratch that, in today's troubled times, this bank probably would murder before it would lend cash).
"Everyone who's ever been tied to this bank has ended up dead," the character Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent, says toward the beginning of the new movie The International. Salinger, as played by Clive Owen, is investigating the suspicious death of his partner and the focus of his interest is the International Bank of Business and Credit.
The movie, which opens Friday, has the look and feel of a James Bond or Jason Bourne adventure. The locales are far-flung-Berlin, Milan, New York, Istanbul. The conspiracies are deep. And the action is at times relentless-a sequence shot inside the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum is among the most thrilling shoot-em-ups seen in a movie in some time.
But does a bank-and by extension, the bankers who run it-make good villains? When banks have played crucial roles in films, they're almost always used as the setting for a robbery. The entire plots of movies like The Bank Job or Inside Man deal with characters plotting how to get into a bank, how to get the loot, and how to escape without getting caught. (Click here for a slideshow about movies that deal with banks or bankers.)
What many bank robbery movies don't have are developed characters who are bankers. More often than not, he (and it's almost always a man, unless the character is a teller, and then she's got only a small role) is a secondary character whose only purpose is to hand over the money, discover a robbery, or facilitate a seemingly innocent financial transaction. These bankers are, frankly, a dull and uninteresting lot.
Every now and then, a banker emerges on film with deeper motivations. Christopher Plummer's bank chairman in Inside Man tries to keep a Nazi past hidden away in a safe deposit box. Tim Robbin's wrongly convicted banker in The Shawshank Redemption uses his skills to help prison guards with their finances and to set up an illegal account for the warden, which he later takes for himself after escaping. And then there's Michael Douglas' infamous role as Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, though one could argue he wasn't that different from throngs of investment bankers whose sole motivation is to make lots and lots of green.
The bankers in The International are different. Yes, they're still men. And sure, they're really just in it for the money. But these bankers, led by Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, have histories and families. These bankers also have a side mission, to supply weapons to a corrupt African military figure. The problem is that the deeper the audience learns about the bank's motivations, the more unbelievable the plot becomes, and the less interesting the bankers are.
What it all boils down to, according to one character, is control: "You control the debt, you control everything.This is the very essence of the banking industry."
The creative people behind The International, German director Tom Tykwer and first-time screenwriter Eric Warren Singer, began working on the project before the global banking crisis hit last year. The plot harkens back to an earlier banking fiasco, that of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The BCCI was brought down in 1991 for fraud and corruption, as well as allegations that it was involved with bribery, arms trafficking, and support of terrorism.
In interviews, Clive Owen-no stranger to the bank-movie genre, since he was the robber in Inside Man and is due to reprise that role in a sequel-said that the movie tries to ask big questions.
"The whole film is about this huge, faceless multibillion-dollar bank who I believe to be corrupt," he said in an interview with AFP. "The big questions in the movie are: Do banks use our money appropriately.Can you trust them? Are they corrupt? Now the questions have been hugely to the fore in the last six months with what's been going on."
All good questions. But here's a better one: Are moviegoers interested in the machinations of banks or the intricate maneuverings of financiers? Given the dismal performance of recent films with a political theme, filmmakers shouldn't look at current events in the banking world and see a blockbluster in the making. Now, add some machine guns and Nazis to the mix, and they might just have a winner.VisitÃÂ Portfolio.comÃÂ for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers.ÃÂ Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.