|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 11 December 2001|
"The Score" is a pleasant, relatively low-key procedural heist drama, given some added weight by the presence of stars Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando and Angela Bassett. The big-gun cast elevates material that is already well-shaped and intelligent, albeit somewhat routine.
De Niro plays Nick Wells, an expatriate American who owns a jazz club in Montreal, while earns his main income as a high-level thief. Nick wants to hang up his burglary tools and marry his longtime lover (Bassett), but his fence/pal Max (Brando) tempts him with one last big score. Jack Teller (Norton), a brash and talented young criminal, has got an inside advantage at the Montreal Customs House, where a priceless antique scepter is being held. If Nick and Jack can work together to pull off the theft, it will net Nick six million. Trouble is, Nick doesn’t want a partner and Jack is perhaps over-confident and definitely needy when it comes to getting respect from Nick.
The script by Kario Salem and Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith, from a story by Daniel E. Taylor and Salem, is solidly structured and has enough amusing riffs to keep us engaged, although the overall framework is pretty familiar – like Max, we know what Nick will decide to do, no matter how he protests. Director Frank Oz provides what is perhaps the biggest surprise by handling this tale of illegal activity with uncommon gentle humor. The filmmakers for the most part avoid the mayhem associated with this genre (there are some moments of violence, but they are relatively bloodless).
"The Score" is preoccupied to an unusual extent with the techniques of breaking and entering, which are fascinating up to a point but eventually get to be a bit much (unless, of course, one is an aspiring burglar, in which case this movie is probably a fine training manual). Oz, the writers and the cast get us to care about the characters and whether they’ll get away with it, but we’re not made to dread possible apocalyptic consequences as in, say, "Heat." The movie makes its mark most strongly in little character details, like Nick’s professional association with an obsessive/compulsive hacker (the scene-stealing Jamie Harrold). Norton’s Jack has a dual identity that he plays expertly and of course it’s a kick to watch De Niro and Brando together on screen for the first time (although both starred in "The Godfather Part II," they had no scenes with one another there).
On the audio commentary track, director Oz talks about the "importance of silence" in "The Score," and he’s not kidding – this must be one of the quietest movies about a break-in ever made. The dialogue track is always clear in the mix – in Chapter 4, there’s perhaps a touch of raspiness – and there is surround, but the 5.1 is extraordinarily literal-minded. Because nearly all of the action is taking place on screen in front of us, sound is concentrated in the mains and the rears, with the rears simply bringing up distant street ambience. There are a few exceptions, like a siren that travels through the rears and a rare loud noise (a ringing telephone) in Chapter 7 and some good atmospheric harbor sounds in Chapter 10. The biggest sound effect, an underwater explosion in Chapter 13, has nice weight and convincing dripping water in the rears, but even this is relatively restrained. The likewise muted, dignified colors of Rob Kahn’s handsome cinematography are reproduced sharply here.
Jazz buffs will appreciate the smoky singing of Cassandra Wilson in Chapter 4 and piano playing by Mose Allison in Chapter 9, with both artists appearing onscreen as themselves (performing at Nick’s club). There’s a bit more of Allison in the alternate takes section of the supplement, along with several takes of De Niro and Brando improvising a negotiation scene between their characters. The commentary by Oz and director of photography Hahn, in the center channel with the main audio track playing low in mains and rears, is primarily concerned with how shots were set up, although Oz discusses his enthusiasm for the actors in general and difficulties with Brando in particular.
"The Score" is enjoyable and smart. It gets credit for actually setting its story in Montreal (too often a location made to double for other cities) and more credit for fulfilling its reasonable goals without trying too hard or becoming pretentious.