Heist Heaven

'The Good Thief' offers a good payoff.

In 1955, French writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville made Bob Le Flambeur, which some consider the classic heist movie. Of course, not wishing to leave it to the French to have command over such things as toast, fries, and heist movies, a British/American coalition of the willing was brought together to remake Bob le Flambeur for the 21st century.

Well, actually, it was an Irish/American coalition. Director Neil Jordan takes actor Nick Nolte through the paces as Bob Montagnet, an aging thief who wants to settle down and get out of the business of stealing things.

Strangely, though, in a plot twist never before seen in the history of movies made by the French and then remade by non-French persons, Bob is offered one last big score, a chance to retire in comfort. All he has to do is rob the most heavily guarded casino in the world.

Now, you may think this is easy, but, in fact, it is not. It requires a great deal of planning and help from an oddball assortment of racially and sexually diverse criminals. Yes, an oddball assortment. I know, you're thinking, "surely, an evenball assortment would be more apt, yes?" No. I tell you, this kind of thing can only be done by an oddball assortment.

Chief among the helpers is Paulo, played by Said Taghmaoui, who just happens to be one of the best actors of his or anybody else's generation. That includes Generation X, The Me Generation, and The Greatest Generation--so generationally, he withstands a great deal of competition.

While Bob and Paulo plan the heist, they also rescue a prostitute named Anne from her evil pimp and fall in love with her. Sadly for Paulo, she doesn't love him, and sadly for Anne, she loves Bob, who, sadly, doesn't seem to be interested in love, because he's so very interested in heroin.

Yes, Nick Nolte stretches his acting muscles to the severe acting muscle strain point by playing a drug addict. This is tantamount to Keanu Reeves playing an idiot or Susan Sarandon playing a bleeding-heart liberal. And yet, Nolte pulls it off. This is really one of the best performances of his career, far better, I think, than his overrated and somewhat overblown performances in Affliction. In Good Thief, he's a soup of bubbling understatement and despair, with a slight hint of oregano, if "oregano" was another word for "good acting."

He also plays perfectly off Nutsa Kukhianidze, who plays Anne. Ms. Kukhianidze is so pretty that I'd watch a two-hour long still shot of her scratching her head and still give it a good review, but in spite of that, I'm pretty sure she's an excellent actress. Her performance, like Nolte's, is a seamless presentation of the anomic life, with 18-year-old Anne providing a glimpse of what the elderly Bob might have been like in his youth.

It's an interesting glimpse in part because of the New Wave cinematography that director of photography Chris Menges employs at director Jordan's behest. The French New Wave of the '60s made use of jump cuts and freeze frames to highlight the artificiality of film. Jordan and Menges follow suit with an odd variant on the freeze frame where the scene goes briefly slo-mo before cutting away. Similarly, some staccato cutting at the end of scenes adds an odd feel to the film that is interesting, if not always entirely successful.

Much more effective is Menges' general use of light and shadow, evoking the American film noir of the '40s and '50s. That's right: The American technique is better than the French technique. Now that only leaves the French with a superiority in wine, women, food, literature, bicycle racing, soccer and general culture. Take that, frogs!

Like a lot of heist films, Good Thief is a little slow prior to the actual heist. However, the love story between Bob, Anne and Paulo keeps things interesting enough. Of course, just like in the Florida election, the fun really starts when the thievery kicks into high gear. What sets Good Thief apart from other heist films, though, is that it's not the heist the carries the weight of the action during this sequence, but rather the thieves' efforts to distract the police from the heist.

Since the police in question are led by actor Tchéky Karyo, you can be sure that there will be lots of stony faced staring and intense pondering. Karyo is kinda the Clint Eastwood of France, if Eastwood was born in Turkey and also was a good actor.

On the whole, the performances and the cinematography go a long way towards carrying Good Thief to the goal line, which is good, because the beginning is slow and requires a bit of patience. Still, the payoff, in terms of hot babes, stolen property and big explosions, is worth it, just as it is in real life, brother.