Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Neglected Gems #5: The Good Thief (2002)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Another EarthBallast) acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

It's unusual for a name director like Neil Jordan (The End of the Affair, The Crying Game, TV's The Borgias) to remake a movie, much less a revered classic like the 1955 French crime drama Bob Le Flambeur. However, from virtually the first second of The Good Thief, Jordan draws you into his exotic, clever film which updates the original with details revolving around sexual identity and current politics, but remains faithful to Bob Le Flambeur's main story and tone. 

Nutsa Kukhianidza and Nick Nolte
That's not to say that The Good Thief is a simple copy of the French film. It brings its own quirky personality to the table even as it sticks to the original’s tale of a group of likable thieves who hatch a daring plan to knock over a casino. Nick Nolte is letter-perfect as the hard-living Bob Montagnet, an expatriate American, junkie and gambler who's hit rock bottom and needs a big score to stay alive. As he assembles a crew and devises a plot to steal millions, an evocative portrait of Bob's world emerges, replete with gallantry, intrigue and villainy, in equal measure. Jordan pulls out all the stylistic stops – jump cuts, quick freezes – but those tricks don't detract from the story. In fact, they function as clues to its changing pattern and nature.

The Good Thief is a droll movie, too – never more so than in Bob's adversarial relationship with his French cop friend/nemesis, gamely played by Tcheky Karyo as the Claude Rains to Nolte's Bogart. The other side of Bob is exemplified by his tender romance with the young Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), whom he has rescued from a pimp. As a smart, Americanized but troubled young girl, Kukhianidze is a real find. Beautifully photographed by the great Chris Menges (Comfort and Joy, The Boxer), The Good Thief moves quickly, surprises with its plot twists and offers the audience a great time. As heist movies – and remakes – go, it's a standout.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

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