You almost certainly have seen more than one movie about a retiring crook going for one last big score. You may have seen the old crook-young crook rivalry before too. And who hasn't seen an elaborate, high-danger heist climax? Heck, that's been done three times in just the last month, in "Sexy Beast," "Swordfish," and "The Princess and the Warrior."
But you haven't seen any of this done with three of the greatest film actors alive, which is what makes the difference in "The Score," a pulse-racing break-in thriller that shatters the mold because of its absolutely brilliant performances and its handful of entertaining twists.
Robert De Niro plays Nick Wells, the career safe-cracker who is ready to hang up his spurs, settle down with a good woman (in this case Angela Bassett) and just run the swanky upscale jazz bar he owns in downtown Montreal.
But his most recent job didn't go quite as planned -- the buyer for the diamond jewelry he stole died before delivery, leaving him with the hot merchandise. So his well-to-do accomplice, fence and best friend of 25 years -- played with whimsical aplomb by the matchless Marlon Brando -- has one more, incredibly ambitious snatch lined up that could bring in enough money to set them both up for life.
The job: Steal a one-of-a-kind, 16th Century golden scepter from the impossibly high-security holding area of Montreal's Customs House, then sell it for millions. The catch: Their inside man is a talented, but egotistical upstart thief named Jack (the inventive and absorbing Edward Norton), who has been casing the joint and copying keys for weeks, undercover as an autistic night janitor.
The Plan: Jack will break away from his sweeping-up duties and sneak a hidden laptop into a circuit room. He'll patch into the building's security system and briefly turn cameras and alarms on and off so Nick, breaking in from city access tunnels below the building, won't be seen by security guards -- who will hopefully think the short outages are just system glitches. There's more to it than that -- Nick has to figure a way to bust open the most complicated safe he's ever seen once he's inside -- but you get the gist.
Not a bad plot per se, but certainly not all that unique. However, with the presence of these three actors -- who are all without question top talents of their respective generations -- coupled with the handsome, tense and skillful direction of Frank Oz (better known for weightless comedies like "In and Out"), "The Score" rises far above its workaday caper picture origins.
Brando has the smallest role, but his very screen presence brings extraordinary vitality a central-casing type character. He exudes the rascally affluence of a moneyed old crook who nonetheless lives beyond his means (in his gated mansion with his Greek sculpture and his indoor pool). He turns every line of dialogue into a delicious delivered jape, a deeply felt sentiment or a amiably manipulative ultimatum. He steals scene after scene, yet somehow does it without actually upstaging his co-stars, with whom he has a captivating rapport.
De Niro is playing a variation of his signature persona -- the shrewd, impassive but obstinate veteran (cop, thief, spy, mobster, take your pick) -- and he's at the top of his game here. You can see the wheels turning in his head as he's constantly, dubiously sizing up and reevaluating his options and his partners. He trusts his old pal Max (that's Brando), but not enough to dismiss rumors that he's in trouble with the mob and desperate for quick money. He doesn't trust Jack and he has no qualms about making that readily apparent. But he has to work around that mistrust to get the job done.
Norton, who can more than hold his own against these two screen legends, is cocky, glib and a bit of a loose cannon as Jack, who can more than hold his own against these two experienced thieves. It's his performance that really sells the tension and danger of the film's clashing egos, which come out in terse, intelligent, head-butting dialogue written by screenwriters Lem Dobbs ("The Limey," "Kafka") Kario Salem and Scott Marshall Smith.
Once "The Score" arrives at the break-in scene, Oz diligently works through the regulation pressure-cooker build-up, cutting between several simultaneous scenes. Jack hacks into the security system while Nick blowtorches his way into the building from a sewer drain and busts the safe open. At the same time another janitor worriedly looking for Jack (remember, he's passed himself off as autistic) and a pair of security guards slowly come to suspect something is amiss and begin a patrol of the building.
Then there are those plot twists I mentioned.
Oz eloquently plays this all out in real time, wisely letting the silence, sweat and strain work themselves into the viewer's psyche instead of trying to soup up the action with the beat-mix music and random, rapid-fire editing that is so often used as cinematic shorthand in modern crime flicks.
"The Score" has a few nagging problems here and there (for example, one character's getaway is too easy). But it speaks to Oz's directorial aptitude that any such problems are overshadowed by his complete control of the movie's mood. He can even make a simple, public park meeting between Jack and a computer hacker who has the building security codes seem at least as tense as the break-in itself.
The only real frustration with "The Score" isn't an issue with the movie itself, but with the television ad campaign that gives away large, consequential chunks of the climax. I'd like to have a few choice words with the idiot who green-lit those commercials.