The Italian Job (2003)

the_italian_job_2003_TIJ_04The Italian Job is a huge cult favorite in England — the 1969 original starring Michael Caine, that is; the new American remake has been greeted with much harrumphing and tea-spitting across the pond, by British movie fans who describe the very idea as “naff” and “pants” and various other Englishisms. (They still haven’t quite gotten over the Get Carter remake.) The first Italian Job is tough to come by these days (the video is out of print in America), so many of us Yanks will have to come to the remake with virgin eyes, which may be a good thing. Never mind how it holds up to the revered Michael Caine effort; how is it as its own movie?

It’s a passable time-waster. On one level I yawned all the way through it, as it’s yet another goddamn heist film. Mark Wahlberg is also in it. But it’s directed with some grace and snap by F. Gary Gray (of the excellent Set It Off, the lackluster if shrewdly cast The Negotiator, and the failed Vin Diesel entry A Man Apart earlier this year), with dialogue by Donna and Wayne Powers that sounds as if they had some laughs while typing it. It’s built for your television on a dead Wednesday.

Edward Norton, phoning it in as the movie’s resident turncoat, may have sensed the movie’s true calling as network background noise. The press informs us that Norton, who usually brings a hungry curiosity to each role, was contractually obligated to do The Italian Job, and he seems to approach it as just that, a job. Gore Vidal once said that to be interesting, you have to be interested. I have never seen Norton less interested, or less interesting, on the screen. I take a whole paragraph on this only to warn off those who might be drawn to the film solely because Norton is in it. He isn’t really in it. His body is, but he isn’t.

So we’re left with Mark Wahlberg as the leader of a band of high-tech thieves. Wahlberg is the idea man (nobody questions his judgment even though it was his idea to do The Truth About Charlie). Seth Green, who insists that he invented Napster and demands to be nicknamed accordingly, is the computer geek. Mos Def is the nitro man. Jason Statham is the expert driver of the team, called Handsome Rob, a name obviously calculated to win my favor. Finally, Donald Sutherland is the team’s grandmaster safecracker and mentor; Sutherland is looking hale and hearty despite his emphysema, though much less so when floating face-down in icy water care of Edward Norton. Sutherland’s daughter, Charlize Theron, has adopted his skills but not his morals; a “professional safe and vault technician,” she cracks safes legally for a living. She joins former flame Wahlberg in a revenge plot against Norton.

That plot, which concerns stealing the gold that Norton stole from Wahlberg’s crew after they stole it from a place in Venice, is less about the gold than about seeing the look on Norton’s face when he discovers that his booty is missing, as more than one character puts it. Problem is, we never see that, but we do get an awkward scene of Norton hitting on Theron (disguised as a cable tech) and taking her out to dinner. Norton does have a little fun with this section of the movie, and the director has much more fun with the protracted climactic chase through L.A., involving a helicopter, three trucks, and three tiny, graceful MINI Coopers for which the movie is an unabashed commercial. (An earlier chase through the canals of Venice — yes, it features a speedboat swamping a gondola — is far less inspired.)

If The Italian Job succeeds at any level, it’s because the characters enjoy what they do, as do most of the actors (not much can be done with Wahlberg, and Norton, let’s say, is convincing as a character who’s only in it for the money). Seth Green is charming when snarling up L.A. traffic, though his best moment comes during the end credits in a bit involving powerful stereo speakers. Mos Def has some amusing moments, and Jason Statham contributes to a fine bit in which he hollers at a recalcitrant driver in traffic, a wannabe actor running lines of dialogue in his car, who responds to Statham’s entreaty by adapting his rough British snarl to the dialogue. And there’s a charmingly showoffy camera crane movement that tilts up from the Venice canals, pans right, and tilts down again among the Austrian mountains. The movie is fast, if not quite furious. The Brits might not like it, but your left ear might enjoy it when it’s on TV some night and you have it on while doing something else.

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