The Italian Job

June, 2003, Thriller

Directed by:Peter Collinson

Starring:Michael Caine, Noël Coward, Benny Hill, Raf Vallone, Tony Beckley, and producer

Caper flicks are unusual in that they have a long and successful history on both sides of the Atlantic. From Riffi thru Bob le Flambeur in France to Big Deal On Madonna Street in Italy to England's The Great Train Robbery, European efforts in this cinematic vineyard have not only been successful, but have often generated re-makes on America's side of the ocean. But there's a big difference between the foreign and domestic versions--ours are much more likely to be focused on the action, while the best of the imports are much more interested in the characters and their often conflicted intentions. They're more interested in motivation; we're more fascinated with technique. Inevitably, that tends to make ours more appealing to a younger audience focused on the action while theirs offer more for those of us who've discovered that why is often far more interesting than how. 

Witness this latest Hollywood effort, directed by F. Gary Gray, a 34-year old former music video director with a series of movie credits dating from 1995 that haven't collectively sold as many tickets as will this high-octane, slickly filmed heist movie that goes down like low-cost Chinese food; immediately interesting and totally forgettable an hour after you've digested it. But with summer's warm weather already arrived, this one provides a quite passable way of wasting a couple of hours in the dark.

Mark Walhberg heads a cast of interchangeable characters in this story of a daring gold robbery that begins in Italy and then takes three years and two continents to successfully consummate. Along the way, there will be treachery, dizzying car chases, a supercharged race through the canals of Venice and more aerial footage than O.J's. freeway media-circus a few years back. Charlize Theorn plays a glamorous safe cracker whose Dad, (played by the always reliable Donald Sutherland) is setting up that always predictable last score before retirement.  With the help of Croker, (Wahlberg) and a gang from central casting, (who wear monikers like Handsome Rob, Napster and Left-Ear as though they came from wardrobe) the crew uses split second timing, NASA-grade electronics and amazing access to supposedly classified information to make their initial score.  The computer geek, the wheel-man, the munitions expert, the muscle; they're all here, and if they aren't inherently interesting people, at least they manage to carry off their adrenalin-filled crime with visual excitement.

One job leads to another, the crew suffers a falling out, and more thievery from the thieves themselves becomes a matter of honor; to say more would risk giving away some of the more clever points in the story line, (which the producers have already done in the preview trailer); suffice it to say that, while the outcome is never really in doubt, the method of its realization contains enough interesting moments to justify the price of your ticket.

Sutherland's part is small, but pivotal, and he's the only member of the ensemble you'd like to get to know; he's made a career out of playing guys who sincerely enjoy being morally corrupt, and it's interesting to see how he can still make a life of crime appear so refreshing. To offset this unexpected bonus however, is a most disappointing performance by the fine young actor Edward Norton, who delivers his lines as though he was giving an initial reading from cue cards. Norton's appearance in a movie is usually reason enough to see it, but here he's all surface attitude; he could have delivered this performance via Fed-Ex and it would have been more vital. 

Gray and his cinematographer handle the action sequences with considerable aplomb, although the final chase was about 10 minutes too long. The director also has the good sense to not tax Wahlberg and Theron with anything more than looking good. It's a wise choice; they come across as proficient technicians, never profound, but nice to look at. The folks that manufacture those new little cars you now see around called Mini Coopers must absolutely salivate when they see this film; the tiny critters are more versatile than their drivers, and often damn near as cute.

In a year that's already given us an adult caper movie as sophisticated as Neil Jordan's The Good Thief starring Nick Nolte, it would be bad form to really criticize this piece of cinematic cotton candy too strenuously; just enjoy it for what is it, but don't expect it to satisfy your appetite for the real thing.     

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