Heist films typically exploit the following structure: a main character meet-and-greet followed by the visionary shyster's starry-eyed pitch for "the perfect job." A bank, a jewel store, a Super Wal-Mart, whatever; the point is that if the gaggle of loveable lowlifes pull it off they'll never have to work again. There are negotiations on who gets what, maybe a smattering of "I can't go back to the joint at 60" attitude and in short order, the plotting begins.
Neil Jordan's The Good Thief follows along these lines but in a frenetic fast-forward. Take an oxygen tank because this is one of those plot pointillism extravaganzas where you can't blink without a new character adding a new twist. The setting is the French Riviera where American expat Bob (Nick Nolte) plays Gandalf to a European Union of ne'er-do-wells. Nolte's washed up, seen-it-all routine is remarkably good, though his gravelly voice requires a considerable amount of ear-straining calisthenics.
So excited is Bob by the possibility of the heist of a lifetime that he kicks his heroin habit by handcuffing himself to his bed. The Good Thief's good booty is a Monte Carlo casino that boasts a collection of paintings to attract the ever-elusive high-art, high-roller crossover niche market. During the intricate detective work, Bob's hounded by a French cop (Tchky Karyo) who's always a step behind, but never quite close enough. Also thrown in the mix is the boyish Bosnian refugee (Nutsa Kukhianidze) who Nolte liberates from a life of prostitution.
Part of Bob's plan -- and a wink to the genre -- is building into the scheme the certainty of a Judas. What he doesn't count on are multiple Judases.
Jordan's direction does not want for energy, but perhaps because he's bored or maybe just attempting post-production artsy-fartsiness, he plays annoying picture tricks. Frames pause for a split second between scenes, while others blur and swoosh. The cumulative result makes this decent little genre film all the more tiring.
The Good Thief is a pleasure to look at with its fleeting glimpses of Riviera decadence and squalor. Ralph Fiennes makes a brief appearance as a Euro-sleazy art dealer, but like most of the cast is sacrificed to the pounding question: How's the heist gonna go down?
Let's just say a lot of stuff gets stolen with a sufficient amount of double, triple and quadruple crossing to satisfy any amateur mystery buff. But after so much huffing and puffing just to keep pace, I was relieved it was over.
-- John Dicker