Art of the Steal, The

Reviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 03/23/14 06:05:09

"Kurt Russell Shines Yet Again"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Given a limited release by its studio, it's worth seeking out if you're tired of movies with nothing but superheroes and overused special effects.

After a far-too-long six-year absence from the silver screen, Kurt Russell stars in the amusing, enjoyable heist movie The Art of the Steal, and he's its biggest asset. Russell began his career in some engaging Walt Disney productions, then proved his considerable acting ability as none other than The King in the 1979 TV-movie Elvis, then a year later delivered a sensational performance as the quintessentially dishonest, politically ambitious salesman in Robert Zemeckis's extraordinary comedy Used Cars. From there he etched memorable hero portraits as the futuristic criminal in Escape from New York and helicopter pilot in The Thing, both of which were directed by John Carpenter (who also helmed Elvis). He was affecting as the blue-collar boyfriends of Meryl Streep in Silkwood and Goldie Hawn in Swing Shift, convincingly played a Miami crime reporter in The Mean Season, and in 1986 he gave what still stands as his finest work as the washed-up ex-high-school-football jock in The Best of Times. He re-teamed with Hawn in the fine romantic comedy Overboard and was suavely duplicitous as Michelle Pfeiffer's policeman love interest in Tequila Sunrise. He even managed to rise above the dismal proceedings in Carpenter's obnoxious Big Trouble in Little China and Ted Kotcheff's opaque Winter People. In the next decade he had his share of hits (Tombstone and Executive Decision) and misses (Unlawful Entry and Breakdown), and never once could one accuse Russell of laying down on the job. So why not a box-office draw, someone who could consistently "open" a picture? (Sadly, his biggest box-office success was the atrocious Ron Howard-directed Backdraft.) Probably because, like Jeff Bridges, you never catch him "acting"; he approaches his craft with the utmost dedication, thinking in terms of his contribution to the movie overall rather than taking advantage of opportunities to distractingly steal scenes. American audiences are more receptive to actors who pander down to them, which is why mediocre performers like Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey have achieved the success they have; in Russell's case, he's simply had the misfortune of sticking to his scruples and respecting his craft -- he refuses to pollute his characters with trumped-up artificiality. In Dark Blue he delivered a galvanizing turn as a corrupt Los Angeles cop that was far more forceful than Denzel Washington's odious Training Day shenanigans, and in Quinten Tarantino's Grindhouse segment Death Proof, as Mike the Stuntman, he was, as he always has been, the very epitome of "cool."

In Art of the Steal, Russell is simply marvelous, and what a pleasure it is to see him headlining a modestly budgeted picture and showing he can still effortlessly hold our attention throughout. His Crunch Calhoun is a veteran thief specializing in high-risk, high-dollar art forgeries; he has an ace crew, among them his half-brother Nicky (an alert Matt Dillon), who flawlessly duplicate genuine expensive paintings that will stand up to carbon dating and expert analysis, and sell them on the black market to the highest bidder. Their last job, in Poland, went just fine; that is, until Nicky got nabbed by the police and sold out Crunch to get off scot-free. After a seven-year prison sentence and five-and-a-half years served for good behavior in a Warsaw prison, Crunch returns home in Quebec City, where he's reduced to jumping a motorcycle through a ring of fire at car derbies, taking payoffs to crash-land to please the audience, and recuperating for weeks at a time in a neck brace at his house. Tired of being cash-strapped and regretful he hasn't pulled off the kind of legendary score of lore, he agrees to reassemble his crew and work with Nicky to steal the most valuable book in the world, the Gospel According to James, and reproduce ten copies to sell to ten different buyers at a million dollars apiece. To give away more of the plot would be unwise, for, as we know from this subgenre, the twists and turns are what it's all about; and to its credit, The Art of the Steal plays fair with us in that the latter half's revelations coherently match up with the first half's set-ups. This is only writer/director Jonathan Sobol's second feature, and while his dialogue sometimes calls attention to itself in the effort to be "colorful," his execution of his okay material is consistently adroit and inventive -- the fluid camerawork coupled with Adam Swica's gorgeous lighting result in a brisk, stylish ninety-minute entertainment that never overstays its welcome. Granted, a subplot involving an Interpol agent and a veteran-thief informant (a wasted Terence Stamp) is more disposable than integral, some of the particulars of the central crime scheme aren't as fleshed out as they could be (the movie lacks the fascinating intricacies of James Foley's near-brilliant Confidence), but for the most part Sobol's judgment is sound. There's a funny scene at the Canadian border where Crunch's jittery apprentice arises the suspicion of an officer with Crunch and Nicky hiding in the car's trunk that's beautifully timed, a nifty motorcycle chase sequence through a subway station reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, and, of course, Russell's ever-reliable solidity reaffirming him as a down-to-earth screen treasure.

Considerably superior to Frank Oz's "The Score" and David Mamet's "Heist."

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