April 4, 2003

More grime than glitter makes The Good Thief fall flat

It's been almost 50 years since Jean-Pierre Melville wrote, directed, and put out his defining heist movie, Bob Le Flambeur. In its era, Bob was dashing and even fairly influential; Lewis Milestone's rat-pack edition of Ocean's Eleven was not so much the original to Steven Soderbergh's remake as it was an echo of Melville's initial cinematic shout. Neil Jordan must have imagined something spectacular for himself, putting out his own version after all three of these others had managed to find another angle.

Whereas Melville drew up his title character as a dapper criminal with a heart of gold, Jordan imagines him as a jaded ex-convict who simply can't quell his destructive yearnings. Hence comes The Good Thief, a seasoned crime story with enough savvy to dig out its roots but too much self-indulgence to sever them. The Good Thief is the burnout's heist movie: middle-aged, exhausted, but still wayward.

Nick Nolte plays Bob Montagnet, flexing his actor's muscles to portray a washed-up playboy still in the thralls of his drug addiction. He gives homes to misguided youth, bets on horse races, and collects favors from locals who owe him from his more vibrant days. And when the time comes, he gets pulled back into his criminal world by one last caper, a casino robbery.

Of course, a person like Bob can hardly step out of his house without catching the attention of the friendly law enforcers who treat him to drinks when he's playing it straight. So the heist will have to be even more duplicitous than your average multi-million dollar job; a few extra twists and turns will be needed to throw the police hounds onto a different scent. Bob assembles a team of no-names and has-beens to carry out the task. He also takes in a leading lady, Anne (Nino Kukhanidze), more for the purpose of keeping her off the streets than anything else.

A convoluted stream of twists and characters unfolds, and we are left with a conclusion so improbable and unexpected that it appears to have been spliced directly from another movie. The Good Thief becomes a new production somewhere around the three-quarter mark.

It's left to the viewer to decide which portion of the movie he prefers, of course, but it bears noting that Melville, Milestone, and Soderbergh all chose the glitz of The Good Thief's final scenes over the exhaustion of the early ones. More importantly, though, they all made a choice and stuck with it. It seems as though Neil Jordan tried to opt for Nolte's ragged has-been but was restricted by a script that called for a good deal more vibrancy. More of the state-of-the-art security systems, less of the cigar smoke.

In fact, the movie is repeatedly hampered by this kind of confusion. A misplaced if amusing intercession by a pair of corrupt security guards who are identical twins, a dramatically underdeveloped biblical motif, a stupid-human-trick transsexual goon named Phillipa, née Philippe. A slick, indulgent caper movie might have benefited from the twins and suffered Phillipa with a smile, and a dreary, intellectual one might have explored the biblical allusions further. As it stands, The Good Thief manages none.

In fairness, Jordan made good on a few of his ambitions. He did a lot with a no-name cast, for instance Said Taghmaoui stands out as Bob's right-hand man, Paulo, and Kukhanidze plays a fairly subtle Anne. He was also quite successful in creating an understated gray-blue aesthetic that carries the first half of the movie. But the flaws eventually overshadow these modest successes.

When you get right down to it, the movie probably made no sense from the beginning. There must have been some reason why Melville, Milestone, and Soderbergh were so successful with a different formula. Had Jordan taken the easier path and allowed the script's intrinsic eagerness to come through, The Good Thief would have been more complete, if a little tired. Jordan aimed higher and missed. The result is a movie that is a lot like its lead character: ambitious, intelligent, but ultimately too crooked to save.