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Italian Job, The (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 30 May 2003
"I trust everyone," say two characters in this movie. "It's the devil inside them I don't trust." It's true of remakes: often they're begun with the best intentions, but what gets to the screen all too frequently is a farrago, not only not better than the original, but significantly worse. One of the biggest mistakes is to "update" the original -- not in terms of when it was made/set, but in terms of attitude. Too many people in Hollywood today seem fearful of not going for irony whenever they can. That attitude severely damaged the third-rate remake of "Charade," "The Truth About Charlie," that came out last year. All changes were for the worse. Mark Wahlberg, who was in that, is also in "The Italian Job," a remake of the 1969 movie of the same name, which starred Michael Caine. But don't let Wahlberg serve as a clue.

I never saw the original "Italian Job," but it's hard to believe it could be significantly better than this delicious movie. The script by Donna Powers and Wayne Powers (from the original by Troy Kennedy Martin) is beautifully structured and splendidly timed by director F. Gary Gray. It's a caper movie in the classical mold -- in fact, there are two capers here -- and old-fashioned in the best possible way. Gray and his team do not try to rise above the material, there is clearly no effort being made to "modernize" the story (although it does take place in the present). It's not even a tribute, a paean, to the old caper classics like "Rififi," "Topkapi" and all the others. Instead, it's simply a good, very good, caper movie that happens to have been made today. Miss this at your loss.

F. Gary Gray is known for "Friday" and "Get It On," rather than for "A Man Apart," released earlier this year, but made before "The Italian Job." Here, he seems to have realized his job is to tell the story and stay out of the way. The movie is remarkably relaxed and easy-going; there's no effort shown by anyone, blessedly including the writers. That is, there are no edgy characters, no hyper-colorful sidekicks, no sticky romance (the hero doesn't even KISS the heroine, though they do go off together at the end). Everyone apparently realized the movie is about the story, not about the characters -- who are well-drawn and well-played, but not at all intrusive. The goal is always, always to tell the lightweight story as best as it can be told.

As the title suggests, it begins in Italy, in Venice. Grinning ex-con John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) meets with his much younger protégé Charlie Croker (Wahlberg). It's just a short time before they will do a major heist; we know nothing of their elaborate plans beforehand, but follow them as they tick off neatly, one meticulous element after another. It involves the theft of a safe of (presumably ill-gotten) gold bars, and includes Steve (Edward Norton), Left Ear (Mos Def), Handsome Bob (Jason Statham) and computer expert Lyle (Seth Green). Following a speedboat chase through the Venice canals, everyone gets away cleanly, and meet again on a dam in the mountains of Switzerland. (Throughout, the movie makes great, visually spectacular use of locations.) They're about to gather to divvy up the gold when Steve unexpectedly arrives with a different gang. He shoots John dead, and when the others tumble into the water, assumes they're dead, too. But only John dies.
A year later, we meet Stella (Charlize Theron), back in the United States. She's a brilliant security expert who, like her father John, can crack open any safe -- but she uses electronic gadgetry to open them, not her hands and hearing like her father did. Charlie shows up; he's already told her that her father is dead, and reveals he knows where Steve is now -- Los Angeles -- and that he needs her help in running a caper on Steve, to get back the gold and to avenge John.
Once in Los Angeles, Charlie reassembles the other survivors of the Italian job, and together they plot to bring down Steve. Part of the plan involves Stella getting close to Steve -- who lives in a heavily guarded, isolated mansion in the Hollywood Hills -- to find out as much as they can about his security precautions and where he keeps his safe. But then things go wrong -- Steve realizes she's John's daughter, and that the others are still alive. There are more complications later, including the Russian mob.

The first "Italian Job" was famous for its use of Mini-Coopers, with the little cars zipping all over Turin during a city-wide traffic jam. Not only does the traffic jam -- engineered by Lyle, who claims he invented Napster -- figure into the new one, but so do the Mini Coopers, used by our gang as they try to make their getaway. Also, Stella drives one herself, like a hardened race driver. It's possible the car stuff isn't as inventive as in the original, which I have yet to see; the sequence was headed by Remy Julienne, one of the great stunt drivers in movie history. He did imitations of the Mini-Cooper sequence for years, including in commercials. The sequence here is terrific, with the spunky little cars being displayed so well that the movie doubles as a commercial for them. But it probably doesn't have the shock-of-the-new that the equivalent sequence did in the original.

The cast is very good, but the movie is not really about the performances. Wahlberg is low-key and pleasant as Charlie, Charlize Theron is gorgeous and tough as Stella, and Seth Green often very funny as the classic hacker who feels he's never been given his due. Jason Statham and Mos Def are also fine in their roles. In an unusual touch, partway through the film each henchman is described to Stella in quick, funny flashbacks.

Edward Norton became notorious for doing his best to get out of "The Italian Job" altogether, and appeared in it only under protest. But he's smart enough to know that if he turned in a lackluster performance, it wouldn't do him any good in the long run. Steve is a pretty one-note character, but Norton keeps him lively and interesting. And truth be told, this is probably exactly the kind of film that Norton should appear in occasionally. He'll end up better known to a wide range of people.

The sound is all you'd expect from a moderately expensive studio film: realistic, well-timed and almost unnoticeable. The score by John Powell is very unusual, with some scenes underlaid by music that seems almost to conflict with what we're seeing. Cinematographer Wally Pfister makes great use of locations from beginning to

Strangely enough, making a movie that lacks violence, sex, and caca-peepee jokes today takes a certain amount of courage. But F. Gary Gray and his cast and crew stick to their guns; it's a funny movie, but it's not a comedy -- the laughs mostly derive from the characters and what we know about them. You can sit there and let the film sweep over you. The dialog is witty without being overly clever, the situations are dangerous without being contrived, and there are plenty of surprises, some of which are predictable. Again: there is absolutely nothing forced about "The Italian Job." In its old-fashioned way, it's one of the real surprises of 2003.

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