[Screen It]


(2001) (Robert De Niro, Edward Norton) (R)

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Drama: A professional safecracker takes one last job with a young but determined partner as they try to steal a priceless, seventeenth century scepter from a high security installation.
Nick Wells (ROBERT DE NIRO) is a professional safecracker who's set to retire from a life of crime so that he can settle down in Montreal with his flight attendant girlfriend, Diane (ANGELA BASSETT). Yet, his longtime friend and fence, Max (MARLON BRANDO), has come up with a potentially lucrative job that's too big to pass up.

It seems that a priceless 17th century scepter has been impounded at the local customs office and a criminal there, Jackie Teller (EDWARD NORTON), who's been posing as a part-time janitor with cerebral palsy, has been casing the joint, figuring out how to steal the piece.

All he needs is someone to crack the safe where it's being held and that's why he needs Nick, who reluctantly agrees to take the job. From the point on, the two men must not only figure out exactly how to penetrate the building's high security measures, but also how to deal with various complications that arise as they try to pull off the heist without getting caught.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Perhaps it's because there's a sense of safety knowing they're on the screen and not immediately in our presence or it's simply due to their literal larger than life display, but moviegoers seem to love watching criminals in movies whereas the same usually doesn't hold true in real life.

Of course, some of that depends on the genre - criminals in comedies are usually more appealing or fun due to the realism being lessened - and the type of crime - old time bank robbers, art thieves and spies are "okay," but rapists, child molesters and war criminals are not. Whatever the case and in regards to the "acceptable" type of such characters, viewers can't seem to get enough of watching them in action, particularly if they're quite proficient at what they do.

Case in point are those existing in the dramatic thriller, "The Score." While this methodical and slow to build, but generally entertaining heist flick clearly benefits from the presence of its two magnetic leads - someone could make a movie showing Robert De Niro and Edward Norton discussing the molecular makeup of earthworms and it would still be intriguing - it's the proficient criminals at work angle that makes it appealing.

As directed by Frank Oz ("Bowfinger," "In & Out") who works from a script by screenwriters Kario Salem (co-writer of "The Fast and the Furious," writer of HBO's "The Rat Pack"), Lem Dobbs ("The Limey," "Dark City") and Scott Marshall Smith ("Men of Honor"), the film makes certain to elicit that reaction right from the get-go as we see De Niro's character knowing exactly what to do to crack a safe in the opening scene.

While we might not applaud his behavior from a legal or ethical standpoint, we're immediately hooked by seeing him in action and so in control. The story then sets up the ensuing elaborate and exceedingly difficult heist that then takes the rest of the movie to plan and attempt to pull off. Accordingly, the entertainment value should then come from watching the pro in action as he deals with the "necessary evil" partners and various complications that inevitably set in.

For the most part, the filmmakers manage to do just that, although the slow and deliberate pace and lack of any overly imaginative or creative complications could leave some viewers wanting more than is ultimately delivered. It certainly doesn't stand up to the related fun that was present in "The Thomas Crown Affair" and its story of a professional art thief.

That's due to several factors. For one, that Pierce Brosnan vehicle took a more whimsical and international feeling approach to storytelling (yes, something of a James Bond aura) than what's present here, although that's not meant to imply that this film is void of humor as it does have a few funny and/or amusing moments.

What's more conspicuously absent is some sort of embodied antagonist who's attempting to thwart the characters' plan (be that in the form of the law or other criminals trying to move in on the action, etc.). While that doesn't prevent the film from offering the necessary conflict and related complications that are necessary to generate dramatic moments, it does suppress the degree of both. Not surprisingly, that's then somewhat responsible for the slow pace and rather straightforward A to Z plot.

When that's the case, filmmakers usually throw in subplots to break up the main thrust and/or generate some more depth to the proceedings. Here, that comes in the form of Angela Bassett ("Music of the Heart," "What's Love Got to Do With It?") as the protagonist's flight attendant girlfriend who takes him up on his offer to settle down with him once he retires, only to discover that there's the one last job. While the potential is there for some hesitation-inducing conflict, either the screenwriters dropped the ball or Oz and his editor trimmed it out as it's not particularly effective and Bassett is essentially and unfortunately wasted in the role.

Speaking of "waisted," Marlon Brando ("The Island of Dr. Moreau," "On the Waterfront") appears - and then some - in the other subplot as a fence who has some debt problems. More noticeable for the girth he brings to the screen rather than much of anything resembling a decent cinematic creation, Brando gets some of the film's more amusing lines. Yet, a more effective, less costly and considerably less temperamental performer easily could have replaced him with no ill effect on the film.

Thus, without a personified antagonist and essentially ineffective and barely time-consuming subplots, the film systematically proceeds through the standard stages of the difficult heist. Thankfully, that picks up in both speed and related fun once it begins to unfold, but it's the presence of and performances by the two leads that make the film so easy to watch.

Granted, this is the sort of role that De Niro ("Meet the Parents," "Ronin") could play in his sleep with little or no problem. Yet, he's just so good at embodying this sort of character that you simply can't keep your eyes off him or prevent that knowing smile from unfolding across your face once you realize his character truly is in complete control.

Easily holding his own opposite the screen legend is Edward Norton ("Keeping the Faith," "Fight Club"), clearly one of the most gifted actors working today. Whether pretending to be affected by something resembling cerebral palsy or being as ruthless and calculating as they come, Norton is a blast to watch, even if the filmmakers don't take full advantage of the potentially combustible chemistry between him and De Niro.

In the end, that pretty much sums up the film as well. While it certainly becomes more entertaining to watch as it unfolds, one can't help but notice that the film is missing that necessary spark that could have turned it into a classic of its genre.

That's particularly true when what are arguably the best actors of their respective generations are present together (Brando, De Niro and Norton - with only Haley Joel Osment missing to top off the cinematic quadrumvirate) but don't end up lighting up the screen. Decent and generally enjoyable but ultimately nothing overly special, "The Score" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 10, 2001 / Posted July 13, 2001

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