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Good Thief, The

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 04/09/03 19:15:39

"Nick Nolte is on the Rehab Comeback Trail, and Jordan hitches a ride."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Hot Damn! Nick Nolte is back in the saddle after his big drug arrest and rehab fiasco last year. Ironically enough, he plays a former thief and current heroin and gambling addict who goes clean "cold turkey" to pull off one last big heist. And man, is he fun to watch. THE GOOD THIEF is "a Neil Jordan film", and Jordan may hold the title and registration, but Nolte is definitely behind the wheel.

Nolte plays Bob Montagnet, who has retired from the world of big-time heists and is living in semi-retirement in France. Besides shooting Heroin and gambling, the main love in his life is a Picasso painting that hangs on his wall - a painting he won from Picasso himself after they bet on a bullfight . . . or so he tells everyone.

However, Bob's betting and gambling lifestyle has caught up to him. When he bets the last of his money on a horse race, his friend asks "But what if you lose?" His reply is a casual "Well, then I'll have hit rock-bottom, and will have to change my ways". When his horse loses and the drugs run out, he is in a prime position to be lured by one of his former associates, Said (Ouassini Embarek), into pulling off a really big score. Only this time it's not money, but a valuable cache of paintings . . . including some Picassos. As it turns out, art is Bob's Kryptonite. Count him in.

Along the way, Bob plays savior to a teenage Russian prostitute named Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), who he rescues from an abusive pimp and then lets stay at his home. Anne immediately develops a thing for Bob and tries to seduce him (kind of a "Daddy, why didn't you love me?" sort of thing). However, he rebuffs her advances and handcuffs himself to the bed for a few days until he can get through withdrawals and focus on the upcoming job. Anne decides to settle for Bob's young partner, Paulo (Saïd Taghmaoui) instead. Paulo of course falls for her immediately, but Anne's just killing time waiting for Big Daddy Bob to come around.

As a heist flick, The Good Thief is nothing breathtakingly new. Most of the elements of the genre are borrowed here. Bob shares the obligatory friendship with the French cop, Roger (Tchéky Karyo), who is trying to keep him from doing something he'll have to arrest him for. Bob recruits his assorted team of specialists ala Ocean's 11, and of course one of them happens to be the only guy who can crack the security system, a Russian named Vladimir (Emir Kusturica), because he happens to be the guy who installed it. Thankfully, however, there is no reliance on the ultra-cliched "Hacker" character who can wreak all manner of havoc in their favor via the highly overestimated power of THE INTERNET.

There are a few other nagging flaws with the film. One of them is Jordan's directorial style. Most of the time it's crisp and vivid, but he seems to have been in "experimental" mode here. A few chase scenes are edited together with a blurry and stuttered look that is altogether annoying, and he's also discovered a penchant for transitioning various scenes with a distracting and seemingly arbitrary split-second freeze-frame shot which really brings nothing to the table. Now maybe if the freeze-frames had been used a bit more artistically, like to highlight certain moments of action or an interesting look on a character's face, it would have yielded better results. As it stands, they just seem to give the flow of the film an occasional hiccup.

Another problem is with the dialogue. Not in the sense that it's poorly written - to the contrary, it's generally crisp and amusing. The problem is that I (and I'm sure many others) had a difficult time understanding what was being said. Most of the cast is European or Russian, and the mish-mash of accents is often difficult to follow along with. Even Nolte, the only American in the principal cast, mumbles his way through some of his lines, rendering them indistinguishable. Often the problem is complicated by the presence of loud sound effects or the musical score. This is not to say that the cast isn't a talented one, because they are all quite capable and enjoyable to watch in their roles. But when Tchéky Karyo's is one of the easiest accents to follow, you may have a language barrier problem on your hands. Note to filmmakers - when 90 percent of your cast speaks English as a second language, and your one American tends to mumble a lot, a voice coach may not be a bad investment. Say it with me, now - EN-UN-CI-ATE.

Still, these minor quibbles aside, The Good Thief is a highly enjoyable heist flick that's light on genre cliches and loud action, but strong on good dialogue and interesting characters. Even if you won't understand all the words coming out of their mouths, the ensemble cast carries the film quite well, with standouts that include Karyo, Taghmaoui, Kusturica, and Embarek. Ralph Fiennes also pops in for a couple of enjoyable scenes as a decidedly shady underwold art dealer. As for Kukhianidze - well, she's certainly an attractive young lady, with a waifish look and short hair that gives off a distinct vibe of Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return. However, her acting chops seem to pale in comparison to the rest of the cast - although, since her accent is at times the most difficult to follow, it's hard to say how much her abilities are hampered by the language barrier.

But make no mistake - the real star is Nolte. He carries the day as he shuffles, grumbles, and chain smokes his way through the film, giving off the kind of gruff charm he did in 48 Hours or Mulholland Falls. With few exceptions, Nolte hasn't had a real charismatic "star" presence in anything for a while, and it's great to see him bring back that old Nolte charm that we've been missing of late. Although there are many aspects of The Good Thief that make for an enjoyable time, Nolte is definitely the boost that often keeps the film from nearly stalling.

Neil Jordan is a director who has been hit and miss. Yes, he brought us THE CRYING GAME, but don't forget, he's also responsible for HIGH SPIRITS. However, with Nolte by his side, THE GOOD THIEF is sure to bring you over to his camp.

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