One of the better films of 2012 was Headhunters. You probably didn't hear much about it because it was a Norwegian movie that got limited play in the States. It barely made a million dollars at the box office. But despite that, HBO is already slated to give us a remake.
It's an art heist movie, and a damn good one in a subgenre that is largely not up to snuff. There are too many "one last job" scenarios and too many heists that are so unbelievable that there's no real suspense. Headhunters had plenty of suspense, so find it and enjoy the really strange twists it takes along the way.
On the other side of the ledger is a film like The Art of the Steal. Priceless works by the world's greatest artists are still pinched quite often. Two Basquiats were stolen earlier this month in the middle of a gallery show in New York. Like, in front of everybody. So it's not that we don't buy the concept of a ragtag international crew managing to get its hands on the art; it's the way the movie pieces it all together.
Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) is a stunt driver a la Evel Knievel, but he can also make a clean getaway with old paintings. His crew includes his half-brother, Nicky (Matt Dillon), who is more of the idea man. He sets the table at the beginning of each job. There's also a French forger who can reproduce the target in question, either to cover the team's tracks or to sell it as authentic once the robbery has taken place. Finally, there's an old Irish guy named Paddy who has all the connections for moving the art once it's stolen.
When a heist goes awry, Nicky ducks 20 years in a Polish prison by turning in his brother to save his own hide. After doing seven years himself, Crunch wants a little payback. But Nicky presents an offer he can't refuse instead: one last job for gobs of cash. It involves a classic by Georges Seurat, or maybe some weird sculpture of female anatomy, or maybe still a centuries-old book of the Gospels printed by Johannes Gutenberg on the original printing press. All these artifacts are in play in what turns out to be a pretty big con.
In most of these tepid heist movies, the cops are idiots. As an Interpol agent stationed in Quebec City, The Daily Show's Jason Jones is pretty good throughout, bumbling his way through a world he doesn't understand. He's being shadowed by a criminal mastermind (Terence Stamp) lessening his sentence by helping the agency catch guys like him, and sparing Jones no derision the entire time. Their scenes are the highlight here, like a mini-Midnight Run.
The comedy is pretty thick in The Art of the Steal, but it's so evident that a lot of it is trying to make this easier to watch or masking how little the story and the characters make sense together. So its impact is kind of a wash: You laugh a little in the moment, but now you're another moment away from a coherent motion picture. A better movie might have been the Interpol agent and his crusty criminal sidekick pushed into the foreground, with the repetitive criminal gang more of an afterthought. At least, in the spirit of this enterprise, they succeeded in stealing some scenes.