Monday, June 2, 2003

The Italian Job










The Italian Job, an American remake of an English cult classic, is as stripped down and efficient as its Mini Cooper costars, and almost as quirkily cool.

Even if you didn’t see the original, you’ve seen variations on the theme: A motley collection of criminals, each with a different area of expertise, gets together to do the ultimate heist. After a lot of planning and preparation, they start a chain of events as elaborate, improbable, and beautiful to watch as a Rube Goldberg machine.

This gang consists of Charlie (Mark Wahlberg), the mellow mastermind; Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), the suave driver; Left Ear (Mos Def), the wry demolitions expert; Lyle (Seth Green), the geeky computer genius; and Stella (Charlize Theron), the gorgeous “professional safe and vault technician.”

Norton is monodimensional as the bad guy, coasting on bad-guy cruise control as a thief who robbed and killed Stella’s master-thief father. What’s worse, the pivotal role of Charlie is miscast. Wahlberg’s guarded passivity worked well in movies like Boogie Nights, Rock Star, and Three Kings, where he played na├»ve kids who stumble into strange new worlds, but his stillness and lack of range look more like stagnation when he takes on a quick-witted charmer like Charlie.

But not even putting a stiff at the wheel can slow down this joyride. Unlike the too-cool crooks in the recent Ocean’s Eleven remake, who smirked through their carefully programmed moves like a troop of department store dummies, this crew has real energy and a few endearingly rough edges. Theron is particularly impressive, investing what might have been a throwaway part with dignity and making us feel Stella’s pain.

Some of the supporting players are real characters, too, the kinds you rarely see these days outside of Quentin Tarantino movies. Like Skinny Pete, a colossus of flesh with long black braids whose petite girlfriend nestles up against him like a lapdog, or the Ukrainian fence who never seems to stop talking — until his mouth gets him into trouble.

Most of the dialogue is more functional than flashy, but now and now and then something glints enough to be noticed. (“If there’s one thing I know,” says Skinny Pete, “it’s never to mess with Mother Nature, mother-in-laws, or mother-freakin’ Ukrainians.”) The pulse-pounding music is expertly integrated with the action, maybe because first-time director F. Gary Gray cut his teeth on hip-hop videos. Best of all, the chase scenes feel fresh.

The one that opens the movie gooses tired conventions like tearing through a vegetable stand or nearly colliding with another vehicle at a crossroads by using the canals of Venice in place of roads and motorboats instead of cars, and the second features those Mini Coopers. Perky in patriotic red, white, and blue, the little cars bump down stairs and through underground passages like the coolest toys FAO Schwartz ever dreamed of.

And what a treat to see a movie that treats killings as not just morally bankrupt but uncool. Charlie prides himself on never using violence, and the worst his crew doles out is a couple of punches and a few minor traffic accidents. Only Steve uses a gun: That’s what makes him the bad guy. Charlie ends his first showdown with Steve by decking him, but first he lands a sucker punch to the ego. “You’ve got no imagination,” he says with contempt.

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