Dear God, did this movie ever arrive just in time. The Score is not a great movie, or even a great heist movie, but coming as it has in the middle of the most unsatisfying movie summer in years, it feels very much like sinking into a cool swimming pool after a long, humid drive in a car with no air conditioning. This film takes the apparently radical step of featuring characters of actual intelligence, who speak to one another with equal intelligence. More magical still, this movie respects silence. At several points, long stretches go by without dialogue or even noise, as if the camera itself were mesmerized.
It helps a great deal that The Score, a competent if nothing-special heist thriller on paper, showcases three generations of acting giants: Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, and young turk Edward Norton. Amusingly, the hard work increases in inverse proportion to the age of the actor here: Norton essentially plays two characters, De Niro contributes the sort of hardboiled professional he’s done before (most recently in Ronin), and Brando eases his bulk into the nearest chair and watches and reacts.
Watching De Niro and Brando together, I had a random eye-opening thought — “My God, here’s the younger and older Vito Corleone together at last” — but the thought vanished quickly: Actually they’re Nick Wells (De Niro), a safecracker who owns a jazz club in Montreal, and Max (Brando), his old partner and friend. No question, there’s a definite subtext to their scenes together — Max warmly appraising the solid skill of his younger counterpart — and when Norton enters the picture, as a sharp and vaguely contemptuous thief named Jack, his Gen-X impatience only adds to the dynamic, as if Norton were saying to his costars, “Hey, your great acting isn’t the only kind of great acting; it didn’t end with you.”
Fortunately, Norton can back this up. In order to weasel his way into Montreal’s Customs House — wherein lies a priceless scepter Max wants Nick to swipe — Jack has adopted the persona of Brian, a harmless, addled janitor. While Brian is waxing the floors, Jack is casing the joint. When we see Jack at work, and Norton at work, we understand that The Score is less about its plot (Nick and Jack grudgingly team up to nab the scepter) than about deception, acting, the theater of subterfuge. The Score isn’t as suave and exhilarating as Ronin, which had the one-two punch of director John Frankenheimer and scripter David Mamet. It’s mainly an excuse to get these three guys in a room — three generations of controversialists (Stanley Kowalski, Travis Bickle, and Jack the narrator of Fight Club).
Director Frank Oz, taking a sharp left turn from his usual amiable star comedies (In & Out, Bowfinger, etc.), steers this vehicle smoothly. He’s not a natural at action, and thankfully The Score has almost none. There are no car chases — the closest we get is a scene where Jack drives around the Customs House tracking Nick’s movements inside — and I think there are only maybe two gunshots at the very end, fired at the wall. Oz’s method has always been to point a camera at comedic actors and simply let them be funny; here he turns the camera on and lets his dramatic actors crackle. A movie like this benefits without too much personality behind the camera; there’s more than enough in front of it.
The Score isn’t without flaw. Angela Bassett shows up as Nick’s girlfriend, who flies in every so often to be disappointed in him for not quitting his life of crime; she’s a plot point, not a person. So much is made of Nick’s jazz club — he agrees to go in on the heist so that he can finally pay off the club — that we expect more to come of it, and we feel a little cheated that we get no sense of Max’s or Jack’s musical tastes (it might’ve been fun to have Max or Jack make fun of Nick’s tastes).
The movie is bare-bones and, frankly, wouldn’t be much to talk about without its cast. Yet it isn’t a waste like The Mexican or The Negotiator, two cases of banal scripts outweighed by star power. Here it’s more like seeing three of Nick’s beloved jazz legends join together to riff on some old standards; you’re not there for the songs, you’re there for the riffing.