May 30, 2003

Italian gets the job done against its blockbuster peers

I'm going to approach this review of The Italian Job by talking about The Matrix Reloaded and X2. Roundabout, but have a little patience. I was excited about Reloaded, having been a huge fan of the first Matrix. But somewhere between film and cultural phenomenon, the Wachowskis forgot the old adage: a film is just a film. Reloaded's seemingly endless speeches were supposed to explain Life, the Universe, and Everything else those two don't encompass, but only ended up seeming pretentious. Even speaking the words of another, brighter man, Keanu Reeves is never going to convince me he knows anything, let alone the meaning of life. All the philosophizing would have been fine if there had been more action scenes like the freeway chase and actual variations on the usual kick-block-punch kung fu.

As for X2, you'd think that people with the power to shape-shift, control minds, and sprout claws wouldn't be such a group of sniveling wimps. Brian Singer should have stuck to directing movies with real plot and pathos, like The Usual Suspects (1995), instead of wasting his considerable talents pandering to geeks.

So why this digression when we're supposed to be discussing The Italian Job? I wanted to vent my frustrations about films I had expected to blow my mind, but didn't, so as to frame my surprise at the quality of F. Gary Gray's modest little heist thriller, that, among other things, knows that it is just a film.

I had a total lack of interest in seeing The Italian Job. First of all, it is a remake of a decent 1969 Michael Caine flick, and it's the solemn duty of every cinephile to detest all Hollywood remakes as unmitigated evil. Second, it stars Mark Wahlberg, whose previous choice of film roles has left a lot to be desired. On the other hand, I was given free preview tickets, and the film does feature Edward Norton, who many consider one of the finest actors working.

What the hell, it's only two hours of my life, right?

Despite the title, only the first 10 minutes of The Italian Job are actually set in Italy. A gang of high-tech thieves, led by Charlie Croker (Wahlberg), steals a safe from a Venetian security firm. Inside the safe is $30 million in gold bars. However, one member of the gang, Steve (Norton), decides that he wants all the money for himself and pulls a double-cross, stealing the gold and leaving Charlie's mentor (Donald Sutherland) dead. It's the predictable set-up for a thousand heist and noir flicks; realizing this, the filmmakers move through the territory with all due speed.

Afterwards, of course, comes the revenge. Charlie reunites the rest of the gang in Los Angeles, and they decide to steal the gold back from Steve. In order to do so, they have to recruit Stella (Charlize Theron), the daughter of Donald Sutherland's character, who has some expert safecracking skills of her own. And as in any good heist film, each member of the gang has a particular skill that will be a necessary part of the plan, be it electronics or simply driving really, really fast.

When Steve gets wind of the plan, he tries to move the gold to Mexico via armored truck. Fortunately Charlie gets his hands on some modified Mini Coopers just gets progressively more ludicrous. Mini Coopers outracing subway cars; another Mini Cooper and a helicopter playing a suicidal game of chicken; Russian mobsters straight out of Central Casting gunning after everyone. In tunnels far beneath Gruman's Chinese Theater, they probably had teams of monkeys set up in front of Dell laptops, churning those plot twists out.

And, surprisingly, it's all very slick and enjoyable.

The film is not a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. The characters are predictably cardboard, the action sequences are patently ridiculous, and everything is tied up all too neatly by a groan-inducing ending. Norton only did the film under the threat of being sued for contract breach, and given the script, you can't blame him. Theron is given a slightly stronger role than those of most women in movies like this, but ultimately she has little to work with. Wahlberg wears the same blank facial expression at all times, the acting equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death.

But to its infinite credit, The Italian Job never forgets that it's a summer flick. Gray keeps everything zipping along as quickly as one of those Mini Coopers. Many of the actors inject their roles with a good deal of effective humor. Most importantly, no Grand Architect steps out of the shadows, like in Reloaded, to babble about The Eventuality of Anomalies. There's no ludicrous attempt to imbue costumed superheroes with the gravitas of Shakespearean tragedy.

The Italian Job is a popcorn flick, pure and simple. For $10, you get a few laughs and some nice eye candy. To fill a popcorn flick with the pretensions of X2 or Reloaded is to create an insurmountable paradox. First, the long speeches and meditative static shots slow the film down to the point where it no longer functions as entertainment. But then the over-the-top derring-do and explosions, meant only as entertainment, prevent it from being taken seriously.

The Italian Job sticks to its predictable formula and it's a relief. How does it stand outside of comparison to Reloaded and X2? It's a heist film without meaningful aspirations. If you appreciate the conventions of the genre, you'll appreciate it as a genre exercise. If you're looking to spend an afternoon, or need a date movie, you could do much worse. As relief from May's self-indulgent "epics," The Italian Job is perfect.