The Good Thief

The Good Thief

UK/France/Canada/Ireland, 2002. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Cast: Nick Nolte, Tchéky Karyo, Saïd Taghmaoui, Nutsa Kukhianidze, Gérard Darmon, Emir Kusturica, Marc Lavoine, Ouassini Embarek, Ralph Fiennes, Mark Polish, Michael Polish
Writer: Neil Jordan, based on the screenplay Bob le flambeur by Auguste Le Breton and Jean-Pierre Melville
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematographer: Chris Menges
Producers: Seaton McLean, John Wells, Stephen Woolley
Director: Neil Jordan


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

H ere's an existential question: Is an uncredited cameo really an uncredited cameo when the promotional trailers cause the cameo-maker to look like the co-star of the film? The Good Thief, a remake of the French classic Bob le flambeur, does not star Ralph Fiennes. Ralph Fiennes isn't even credited. He appears in two scenes. Memorable ones, to be sure, but just two.

Fiennes' prominent presence in the trailer is a sign that star Nick Nolte no longer shines brightly. Yet The Good Thief takes full advantage of Nolte's tarnish. He could not be cast more perfectly that he is as Bob, a good-hearted, substance-abusing con artist/gambler/thief. Seriously, does such a combination of attributes--which adds up to the lovable criminal--exist outside the movies? It's hard to believe an aging junkie thief could be so well-liked, or have so many people care about him. Even police officer Roger (Tchéky Karyo of La Femme Nikita) likes Bob, wanting to catch him only to save him.

The story is based on a series of feints--what heist film isn't? After Bob blows his last francs at the track, he is persuaded to clean himself up and get back onto the straight and narrow of thieving. There's a casino in Monte Carlo with modern masterpieces by the usual Big Names (Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Modigliani) on its walls to draw in crowds--except the paintings on the walls are fake, and the real masterpieces are stored in a vault. Just like the paintings, Bob sets up a real heist and a fake. He will allow a police informant to become privy to his plan to rob the casino's safe, while in actuality he goes after the paintings in the vault. Naturally, nothing goes as predicted. Raise your hand if this surprises you.

We've got one heist posing as another and fake paintings posing as real paintings. It's a theme. The Good Thief has a man who has become a woman--albeit one who looks like a bouncer--on Bob's crew (Sarah Bridges). Kukhianidze and NolteIt also has directors Mark and Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho and the upcoming Northfork, also starring Nolte) and Emir Kusturica (Black Cat, White Cat and The Widow of St. Pierre as an actor) toiling as actors. In that duplicitous vein, Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The End of the Affair), heading his usual team of assured cinematic technicians, has tried to make a heist film that isn't really a heist film.

With references to the place in heaven reserved for the good thief beside Jesus on the cross, the film aspires to something more than just a bit of fun. Fortunately for it and for all of us, The Good Thief does not pursue its pretensions so doggedly that it stops being entertaining. A movie that peddles pronouncements like "always play the game to the limit" should not be taken too seriously. Anyone following that advice in the real world needs to stop right now and go to a meeting.

With rich colors and alternately jazzy and electronic music punctuated by the occasional Leonard Cohen number ("I'm turning tricks/I'm getting fixed"), what The Good Thief really peddles is style. No one can accuse the verbal interplay of being on the level of, say, the sublime rapid-fire witticisms of The Big Sleep, but it's not bad. With his acerbic retorts and dry ready humor, Bob is indeed a the sort of character that sixty years ago could have been played by Humphrey Bogart.

Newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze plays seventeen-year-old Anne, an omnipresent yet largely extraneous character whose role is to prance about in the semi-nude and demonstrate that Bob is a good guy because he helps her ditch her pimp without then accepting her advances. Anne is a femme fatale because men get into trouble for being associated with her, but she's too young and insubstantial to pull it off. She's no Lauren Bacall, in other words, but at least she has the right worldly, prematurely mature attitude, and a good dynamic with the dilapidated Nolte. "You look good for a man your age," she tells him. "What age is that?" "Stone age," she replies.

What The Good Thief needs is more Ralph Fiennes. It's too bad he wasn't able to take a larger role, because he steals his two scenes from Nolte, even as Bob puts one over on his character. Nolte fences with Karyo, Kukhianidze, and others, but the film could have used a more threatening single individual placed in opposition to Bob--a nemesis like, say, Andy Garcia in Ocean's 11 or Dustin Hoffman in the upcoming Confidence--to provide a clearer axis around which the film could turn. As it is, the danger to Bob is not palpable enough. Even though the story is cleverly constructed, it doesn't much matter whether Bob succeeds or fails.

Review © April 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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