The Good Thief

April, 2003, Thriller

Directed by:Neil Jordan

Starring:Nick Nolte, Emir Kusturica, and Nutsa Kukhianidze

The Good Thief

Last year, director Steven Soderbergh remade "Oceans Eleven", a 1960 caper flick starring Frank Sinatra and his entourage. With fresh faces and a contemporary approach, Soderbergh managed to create his update without tripping all over himself in the process. What would have happened if a member of the French New Wave tried the same thing--remaking a classic French genre piece with a 21st century sensibility? Would it work as well as Soderbergh's? 

These questions have now been happily answered, but not by a Gallic auteur. Neil Jordan, the Irish director whose peripatetic oeuvre includes films as disparate as "The Crying Game"," Mona Lisa", and " Michael Collins", resurrects the Parisian classic "Bob le Flambeur", a 48 year old black & white gem about an inveterate gambler who steals in order to feed his gambling jones. The film was as sleek and lean as a whippet, with an ironic, melancholy tone as perfectly pitched as a love song by Edith Piaf. And wonder of wonders, Jordan ups the ante and pulls off this homage to the original that's every bit as good, and perhaps a bit better.

Nick Nolte, using a voice that originates from somewhere around his ankles and sporting an attitude so cool it's almost freeze-dried, plays Bob, a heroin-and-gambling addict hanging out on the fringes of the Riviera's club life. Because his past exploits as a master thief have earned him the respect of both his crew and the local police, he's approached by a Russian computer whiz with an incredible offer; a score so big Bob can retire with the biggest rep in the French underworld.  Bob must first of course dry out and stop gambling so he'll be clear-headed enough to formulate a plan cunning enough to elude Roger, (Tcheky Karyo) the detective who reluctantly admires Bob's style and audacity. Bob enlists the help of a teenage hooker to help him survive going cold turkey; she's Anne, (played by newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze) who matches Bob's macho hipness with a wicked sensuality as carelessly carnal as it is appealing.

The heist involves a big casino, its collection of Impressionist art, a vault full of francs and a crew which includes identical twins and Paullina, a spider-hating body builder whose name was Paul the last time the gang worked together. Using his own screenplay, Jordan piles Macguffin upon Macguffin, right up to the film's splendidly cut climax, which turns out to be as wonderfully satisfying as it is improbable.

None of this would work without a lead performance which can carry off the kind of male bravura Nolte so effortlessly provides here. He's human wreck as sex object, the kind of man a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold falls for every time. At 63, Nolte exudes a masculine charm permeated with strength and tenderness; loyal to friends, adoring to women, honorable even to his enemies. Like Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, Nolte puts his gang--not to mention the cops--through their paces, extracting from each exactly what he needs; extolling here, admonishing there, and tossing off cool bon mots whenever the going gets particularily dicey.

Nolte's been perfecting this character for much of his career; he's the embodiment of beat-generation Neil Cassidy style, honed to perfection in movies like "Who'll Stop The Rain", "48 Hours", "Prince Of Tides" and "Affliction." Unlike those earlier roles however, there isn't a trace of remorse or impending doom here; Nolte gives us his Bob wrapped in witty, laconic insouciance; he's a shaggy dog Cary Grant, reprising the latter's "To Catch A Thief" persona in the same geographic circumstances. Jordan's cleverly subversive screenplay adds appropriate warts and blemishes to his hero and heroine, placing them quite credibly in a sleazy, low-class criminal milieu which he then photographs with a lush color palate and frequent split-second freeze frames, as if asking his audience, "am I going to fast for you?"

Ms. Kukhianidze's elfin charm belies her stated age, (17); she's probably a bit older, but not by very much, and her cheerful amorality plays perfectly against Nolte's initially paternal reaction. By the film's final sequence in the swank casino however, she's morphed into a sophisticated young woman, an improbability every bit as credible as the other components of this lavishly shot fantasy. Would that the world's bad guys and gals could be as fascinating and ultimately decent as Jordan's cinematic confections. "Good Thief" may just look like an artful concoction of style without substance, but its style of a very high and satisfying order indeed. The result? Top-notch, sophisticated, adult escapism.     

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