The Good Thief Movie Review

There's a sad, compulsive, edge-of-the-abyss desperation to Nick Nolte's intuitive and informed performance as Bob, the heroin-addicted ex-filch and professional gambler title character of Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief."

There's a strung-out savoir-faire to his addiction-driven way of life in the underbelly of beautiful Nice in the South of France. He's sleep-deprived (it shows in his eyes and in his mumbled speech). He's broke (but that changes from day to day). He's a washout (and he's OK with that). But he's also cagey, cunning, collected and quick-witted enough to recognize an opportunity too good to pass up.

So when Raoul (Gerard Darmon), his most trusted compatriot from his days as a crook, comes to him with a plan for an almost impossibly elaborate heist worth tens of millions of dollars, Bob seizes the opportunity to trade in his drug addiction for the more stimulating high of gambling with danger, excitement, prison and potential wealth.

Remaking Jean Pierre Melville's "Bob Le Flambeur" -- an innovative 1955 noir film that was also a precursor of the French New Wave movement -- writer-director Jordan adds a palpable contemporary complexity to this stylish but drug-hazed thriller. The addiction themes run deeper, helping to create a more intricate personality for Nolte to play -- and providing Jordan with both intense drama (Bob handcuffs himself to his bed while going through terrible withdrawals) and punchy humor. ("Remember the '80s, Bob?" asks Raoul. "No," Bob replies.)

The original film's plot, involving a safe heist from a Monte Carlo casino, is included in "The Good Thief," but as a decoy for a sophisticated high-tech plan to pilfer a dozen priceless Impressionist paintings from the casino, which is even more complicated than it seems because the art works on the walls are first-class fakes. Bob and his reassembled crew of eccentric felons are after the originals -- secured in the laser-alarmed vault basement of a virtual fortress across the street -- which the casino would never report stolen because that would expose the joint's decorative finery, designed to lure an elite class of gambler, as counterfeit.

With the help of the greedy Russian technician who designed the vault, they have everything planned to the last detail -- Bob has even counted on being double-crossed by a snitch. But even so, all does not go according to plan.

Jordan ("The Crying Game," "Interview With the Vampire," "The End of the Affair") moves the story along at a very quick clip (don't leave to get popcorn, you'll never catch up) yet maintains a narrative haziness indicative of Bob's still drug-addled mind. This does wonders for the film's atmosphere, but coupled with the twisting plot it also invites some confusion. The scene in which Bob's crew begins to bypass the incredibly elaborate security around the paintings can be hard to follow, mostly because the Russian who explains it all has a thick accent and a tendency to mumble, just like Nolte.

In fact, the most distracting problem with "The Good Thief" is that almost everyone seems to speak with the same rapid, on-the-ball dry wit in the same muffled, syncopated rhythms, no matter their age or their poise, no matter if they're junkies or immigrants who speak English poorly. Once your ear adjusts to the dialect (for lack of a better word), the banter itself is enjoyably sharp. But there's barely a pause for thought in any conversation.

Nolte gets away with this himself because underneath Bob's untidy exterior you can see the wheels of his mind are constantly spinning, which is a testament to the actor's talent (this is his most riveting performance since 1996's "Mother Night") and his willingness to tap his own well-publicized battles with addiction.

It's also an element of the picture's recurring duality theme that includes the two heists, a pair of casino-guard twins (filmmaker brothers Mark and Michael Polish) who want in on what they think is a robbery scam, the double-cross that Bob is smart enough to plan for (then he gets sideswiped from another direction anyway), and the pivotal role of a sexually savvy yet still naive Eastern European nymphette (long-limbed, baby-faced, husky-voiced newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze) whom Bob saves from a pimp and takes under his protection.

Inventively edited -- most notably with quick freeze-frames that feel like exclamation points or moments of narcotic clarity -- and aided by a pulsating, multi-ethnic jazz club score "The Good Thief" is really just a One Last Big Score caper picture. But its characters -- especially Bob -- are so vividly realized and multi-dimensional that it's easy to become wrapped up in their personal fates and almost forget about the heist.

This is exactly what happens when Bob, being heavily scrutinized by a cop who has become his friend and nemesis over the years, enters the casino on the night of the heist to draw the attention of the tipped-off police. When Bob starts winning big -- really big -- for the first time in his life, the paintings and the casino vault suddenly feel like background noise, drowned out by the din of his precarious good fortune.


The Good Thief Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, NY/LA: Wednesday, April 2, 2003<br> LIMITED: Friday, April 11, 2003


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