The Good Thief Movie Review

The heist movie, or robbery movie, has worn out its welcome in recent years. There's nothing more infuriating than feeling as though you're five steps ahead of the film, with no pleasure found in connecting the dots. The Good Thief doesn't really have anything new to add to the genre besides a sense of style. It's as though visionary filmmaker Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Company of Wolves) read the script, accepted it as a simplistic morality tale of an aging crook, and pumped up the sumptuous visuals, the seeps-into-your-bones soundtrack of global music, and the iconic figure of Nick Nolte. Those elements single handedly give The Good Thief a sense of purpose when it would otherwise have none, and the stylistic flourishes -- instead of feeling like they're present for their own sake -- add depth to what could have been another boring movie about doublecrossing.

Whenever the plot of the movie feels rote (the thieves assemble their team, plan the robbery, carry out the robbery, and doublecross each other a couple of times along the way) the arresting images carry the day. Cinematographer Chris Menges (who recently shot another existential mystery, The Pledge) finds the right pace: active yet unhurried, kinetic yet wistful. With shadows that turn into lush purples, greens, blues, and all gradations of black, The Good Thief is intoxicating. Indeed, it might be Jordan's most visually stimulating movie, and one has to wonder if the cookie cutter nature of the script set him free to imagine new visual possibilities. Lovers of the visual image will find much to appreciate; plot-driven viewers will find very little to hang their hat on.

The title character's name is Bob Montagnet, based on a character from Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur. Forget the fact that it's a completely unnecessary remake of a perfectly calibrated noir. Pretend instead it's an excuse for Nick Nolte to inhabit the shaggy, romantic, worn out shell of Bob, a part he's tailor-made for. Playing a down and out American expatriate gambler, strung out on heroin in the early going and planning his Last Great Heist by the film's midpoint, Nolte gives another effortlessly honest performance. His lined face and experienced eyes show a life truly lived. (And let's avoid commentary on his true life troubles, which are more for the gossip columnists. Nolte's a consummate actor, not a freak show.)

Even as the movie goes through the motions of Bob evading a good natured French cop (an amused Tchéky Karyo), tentatively building a May-December relationship with a troubled young girl (the charming and self-aware Nutsa Kukhianidze), and assembling his crew (including filmmakers like the riotous Emir Kustarica and the identical Polish Brothers who made Twin Falls Idaho), it's the Nick Nolte show. Smoking cigarettes, rolling through scenes with self-mocking, hard-boiled irony, Nolte has a presence that can jump start a weak movie (Breakfast of Champions), anchor pretentious art films (Affliction) and bring added layers of depth to great ones (Mother Night and Afterglow).

Nolte's not exactly coasting through The Good Thief, any more than Jordan and Menges are, but he's bringing something special to what could've been a hackneyed and obvious genre flick. That he's accompanied by the woeful ballad "A Thousand Kisses Deep" by gravel voiced Leonard Cohen is both apropos and maybe too on the mark. Cohen seems like the voice of Nolte's wounded lion, a doomed romantic. As Cohen says, "And maybe I had miles to drive / And promises to keep / You ditch it all to stay alive..." It's deeply poignant even as it errs on being as plain as the nose on your face. Kind of like the rest of The Good Thief, a flawed but precious movie worth caring about, writing about, and thinking about.

Neil Jordan offers a commentary on The Good Thief DVD, plus a handful of deleted scenes.

I'll take one too.


The Good Thief Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2003


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