[Screen It]

(2003) (Nick Nolte, Tcheky Karyo) (R)

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Drama: A veteran criminal decides to come out of retirement and kick his drug habit so that he and his team can rob a casino of its valuable paintings.
Bob (NICK NOLTE) is a veteran criminal who's given up on crime in favor of his two favorite addictions, gambling and heroin. Even so, his long-time nemesis, French police inspector Roger (TCHEKY KARYO), knows him well enough to realize that he must always keep an eye on his whereabouts and activities.

The two are reunited when Bob ends up saving Roger's life from an Algerian junkie, Said (OUASSINI EMBAREK), in a club run by pimp Remi (MARC LAVOINE). Bob's too drugged up to be thinking of another job, but when he loses at the racetrack and is presented an offer by longtime associate Raoul (GERARD DARMON), he changes his mind.

Going cold turkey with the help of his assistant, Paulo (SAID TAGHMAOUI), and 17-year-old Anne (NUTSA KUKHIANIDZE), who's moved in with them to avoid becoming a hooker for Remi, Bob gets clean and then heads off with Raoul to scout out a casino that's ripe for the picking. It's not the money they're after, however, but rather the priceless artwork that's hanging on the walls.

The only obstacle is that those pieces are fakes, with the real art locked safely in another building's high tech vault. With the help of a security expert, Vladimir (EMIR KUSTURICA), a casino worker and his twin brother, Albert (MARK POLISH) and Bertram (MIKE POLISH), and a small crew including Philippa (SARAH BRIDGES), who used to be Philip, Bob sets out to pull off the heist, all while dealing with Anne as well as Roger who's intent on tracking his every move.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Whether it's financially based, a case of great minds thinking alike, or just plain old cinematic cosmic karma, movie genres tend to go in cycles, with many similar films popping up within the same one or two years before retreating back to the vault or at least a more spread out release pattern.

The latest such genre seems to be the heist movie. Whether they're highly successful big name productions - such as "Ocean's Eleven" - smaller, less successful ones - like "The Score" -- or more obscure titles such as "Heist" or "Sexy Beast," such films are now back in vogue.

Joining the upcoming "Confidence" is director Neil Jordan's foray into the field, "The Good Thief." A remake of the 1955 French classic, "Bob Le Flambeur," the film comes off as something of a darker, grittier and not as fluffily enjoyable experience as Steven Soderbergh's own retooling of "Ocean's Eleven."

It also retreads elements of previous heist flicks as well as those featuring cops and robbers who are friendly adversaries (one of the last being "The Transporter"). Yet, it does all of that with such a superb sense of style, witty banter and some decent to terrific performances that it's easy to overlook and/or forgive all of those familiarities.

Those looking for an intricately woven, planned and executed crime, however, might be a bit disappointed. That's because Jordan ("In Dreams," "Michael Collins"), as director and screenwriter (working from the original screenplay by Auguste Le Breton and Jean-Pierre Melville), is obviously more interested in style and mood as well as the characters and their interactions than in delving deeply into an intricate or twist-filled plot. That's not to say that what's on display regarding that doesn't have its pleasing moments, however, and one shouldn't necessarily confuse style with slick or flashy music video type offerings.

Instead, the film's look and aura are as grimy as its protagonist, superbly played by veteran star Nick Nolte ("The Thin Red Line," "Affliction"). Utilizing his standard, gruff and gravely voice and disheveled appearance to full effect, the actor delivers one of his best performances in playing a down and out former con artist who still has an edge despite the impact of long term gambling and drug use. Although he'd seem thoroughly unlikable, Nolte's character oozes with enough charm and magnetism that you hope he'll clean up his act so as to get in one last heist.

Any "good" criminal obviously has his foil and that's supplied here by the French police inspector embodied by Tcheky Karyo ("The Core," "The Patriot"). Supplied with some fun and clever exchanges of dialogue, the two make the most of their characters and interaction, and supply the film with a great deal of its heart and soul.

Performances by the likes of Said Taghmaoui ("Three Kings," "Hideous Kinky"), Gerard Darmon ("Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra," "Granturismo"), twin filmmakers Mark Polish & Mike Polish ("Twin Falls Idaho"), Emir Kusturica ("The Widow of Saint Pierre," "Black Cat, White Cat") and Sarah Bridges (making her debut as a transsexual who worries one team member since "women talk more than men") are all fine and deliver solid performances. Ralph Fiennes ("Maid in Manhattan," "Spider") also appears in a few scenes as an appropriately grimy and unhappy art fence.

It's Nutsa Kukhianidze ("27 Missing Kisses"), as a young, would-be prostitute, however, who steals the show and every scene she's in. Not drop dead gorgeous or inhabiting a particularly likeable character, the young actress literally oozes movie star quality and nails her part without much apparent effort.

As is the case with much of the rest of the film, her character's exchanges with Nolte's are fabulous and really make the film fly. If she makes wise and/or fortunate choices in her upcoming roles, she could be the next big thing in movies.

One of the things I didn't like about the film was Jordan's decision to go artsy-craftsy with some of his visuals. At times, the picture suddenly goes into freeze-frame mode, and while I'm sure there's a symbolic reason for that, all such moments do is draw unwanted attention and thus remove the viewer from the proceedings. Thankfully, it's not a terribly debilitating flaw.

Yet, when coupled with the early fragmented and episodic nature of the storytelling, some moments that stretch credibility, and an ending that relies too much on luck rather than wits - such problems are enough to earn some cinematic demerits.

Notwithstanding a fun soundtrack, witty banter, some dead-on performances and a sort of hypnotic pull to it, "The Good Thief" isn't the best or most enjoyable heist story ever put on film. It's also not as slick or "user friendly" as "Ocean's Eleven" or yet another remake of a heist picture, "The Thomas Crown Affair" where stealing artwork was a high priority. Nevertheless, it has enough going for it to earn a recommendation and thus rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 7, 2003 / Posted April 11, 2003

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