Monday, March 03, 2014

Hey, I Finally Saw Neil Jordan’s THE GOOD THIEF!

Okay, so Neil Jordan’s THE GOOD THIEF, a 2002 heist thriller starring Nick Nolte, isn’t a classic, or even a movie that anyone’s ever made me feel guilty for having never seen, but it’s a movie that I’ve meant to get around to since its release 12 years ago, and was glad to see it available for streaming on Netflix Instant.

THE GOOD THIEF premiered in September of 2002 at the Toronto International Film Festival, just days before Nolte was arrested for drunk driving in Malibu. That is mostly remembered by folks by way of the infamous “mug shot,” which can still be seen as junk fodder on late night talk shows and internet memes.

The disheveled look of Nolte in that photo, wild hair and Hawaiian-shirt and all, was at odds with his well put together appearance in THE GOOD THIEF, Jordan’s 11th film as writer/director. Don’t get me wrong, the character Nolte portrays, Bob Montagnet, is a very rough at the edges guy who shoots heroin between intense smoky gambling sessions along the French Riviera, but the film wants to get across that he’s still got it going on - a young woman (Russian actress Nutsa Kukhianidze) says of seeing Nolte shirtless: “You look pretty good for a man your age.” Nolte replies: “What age is that?” Kukhianidze: “Stone age.”

Nolte’s self proclaimed “junkie gambler” is recruited by to mastermind a heist of a Monte Carlo casino, but they’re not after money, their score is a collection of original paintings from the Impressionist era worth more millions than what
’s in the safe. The new Japanese owners hang convincing forgeries on the wall of their casino, while the real ones are stored in a nearby underground vault.

Nolte’s plan involves his appearance distracting the security at the casino – all eyes are on him thinking he’ll rob the place – while his crew is stealing the paintings. “It’s like those paintings,” Nolte explains, “we’ve got a real heist and a fake.”

The film gets pretty flashy; more than one critic called it “stylish,” but underneath the freeze frames (sometimes in slow motion) and carefully staged shots, there’s an odd sense of humor at play. Of the members of his crew, there’s Julien Maurel as a trans-sexual muscleman, a dapper pair of identical twins (Mark and Michael Polish), and Serbian actor Emir Kusturica as security system genius/rock guitarist, all coming together to be the rag tag comic relief throughout the caper.

There’s also an uncredited cameo by Ralph Fiennes as a slimey yet suave art dealer but that doesn’t amount to much so let’s move on.

More than once, Leonard Cohen croons on the soundtrack, himself seemingly obsessed with gambling: “The ponies run, the girls are young, The odds are there to beat. You win a while, and then it's done…your little winning streak” (from “A Thousand Kisses Deep” from Cohen’s 2001 album 10 New Songs).

It’s a fitting dark little song that does its thing here. As does Nolte who glides into the film’s climax in a fine Italian suit with his hair slicked back. “To the limit, let’s get some chips,” Nolte says with confidence as he enters the heavily lit gambling palace as the proceedings get more and more heated.

THE GOOD THIEF is one of those gambling movies that goes against the oft quoted line that “the house always wins.” In other words, ultimately it’s a fantasy film. It wants you to root for an aging down and out gambler to have one last chance at a big score – and look great doing it.

It’s only a notch above being just a watchable time waster, but with Nolte playing his hand perfectly - I especially like his mini-speeches on art, religion, and rock ‘n roll - it’s a pleasing late night find on Netflix Instant. It seems like Nolte has been laying low lately
 - he hasn't had any major film roles, and the HBO show Luck, in which he co-starred with Dustin Hoffman, was sadly cancelled after one season because of the death of three horses. Here's hoping he'll get another film like this one to dominate, he's too often part of ensembles.

It's a shame that that damn DUI photo is better known than this film from the same year, but then Nolte might not have gotten the great juicy self-parodying part in Ben Stiller's 2008 modern comedy classic TROPIC THUNDER without it, so there's that.

THE GOOD THIEF was based on Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 French gangster thriller BOB LE FLAMBEUR, which is available as part of the Criterion Collection. I’ll get to that one day too.

More later...

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