More noise than signal

The Italian Job (2003)

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

For anyone who happened upon the original 1969 version of The Italian Job during their impressionable formative years in all likelihood wouldn’t be able to escape unscathed. I know I certainly didn’t, resulting in a good few years being spent randomly shouting about blowing the bloody doors off in my best bad Michael Caine impersonation. On a purely technical level it was a good to very good knockabout crime caper about the set up and execution of a gold heist enhanced by some fine performances from fine actors and some very, very good and imaginative stunt driving. That doesn’t begin to capture the magic of the movie though. It has a strange blend of kitsch and cool that made it utterly foreign and utterly familiar at the same time. Bizarre enough to cast Benny Hill and Noel Coward in the same film but great enough to have it work flawlessly. It’s so much fun that to this day if I were to live inside a world created by a movie I’d be tempted to choose Charlie Crokers.

It remains one of my all time favourites, without any influence from nostalgia’s rose tinted glasses. However, Hollywood likes to toy with me before it will eventually destroy me and to this end Paramount ponied up the dough to remake the movie and mess with my head. I take this as a personal attack on my childhood and was ill-disposed to see this star-studded, star-spangled makeover. It throws a bit of a curveball by having little to do with the original bar the title and a few character names and deprives me of another opportunity to hate something. Damn.

Sure, it starts with a gold heist in Venice. But that’s near the end of the original, most of the movie consumed with the planning. Here they pull off the objective of the original in short order only to find a new one as Charlie Croker (Marky Marky Mark Mark Wahlberg) is betrayed by a member of his own crew, the disappointingly named Steve (Ed Norton) who makes of with the $35 mil. What a bad man. It’s perfectly acceptable to steal from a bank, but stealing the hard earned spoils of another thief is just morally reprehensible.

Some justification for playing fast and loose with morality is provide by Steve killing the gangs’ father figure John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) before the rest of them effect an escape. It’s a sound motivation for revenge, as if the money wasn’t enough, but it ends up being detrimental to Wahlberg more than anyone else. This is purely because Sutherland is the only other actor present he seems to have established a genuine rapport with and it results in a fairly naturalistic performance from the pair. It does feel as though they’ve been close friends, almost father and son, and Sutherland’s regret over not being a good enough father to his daughter Stella (Charlize Theron) is palpable. Once Mr. Bridger is driven into the sea and off this mortal coil Wahlberg flounders, never seeming to have the necessary charisma with the rest of the crew to carry the film. Comparisons with Caine’s performance are inevitable and unfortunately it’s not in the same league. This said he’s put in a slightly above average performance and he’s never annoying, but it’s this ‘average’ word that haunts the movie.

The bulk of the movie, as with the original is concerned with the planning of an operation to retake the gold once the gang track Steve down one year later in Hollywood. Charlie reassembles the remaining members of his team. Handsome Rob (Jason Statham) takes care of the getaways. Left Ear (Mos Def) is the resident demolitions expert and Lyle (Seth Green) is the computer whizzkid with the movie standard extreme hacking ability to crack any computer in a twenty mile radius purely by clicking, whistling and dancing a jolly dance. Well, I suppose it’s actually handled more sensibly than it is in movies like Swordfish and there’s a solid reason for once to have elaborate 3D flythroughs of building plans but there’s a part of me that wishes for plans to be drawn on bits of paper, just occasionally. They need a safe breaker to round out the crew and complete the job, and after a spot of soul searching Bridger Jr. joins them, Stella abandoning her career as a legit safe technician and security consultant.

There plan isn’t exactly Mission Impossible level but it’s just complicated enough to be interesting without pushing the boundaries of believability too much, and it does rely on the same uber-traffic jam and driving Mini Cooper S’ down storm drains so beloved of the original. There is one minor hitch forcing a change of plans at the end with almost smacks of bait ‘n’ switch but it does provide a far more cinematically grand finale, with the only helicopter vs. Mini showdown I’ve seen in a cinema. It also affords an opportunity for Frankie G. to have an reappearance as the gang’s mechanic Wrench in a role written in specifically for the big guy, last spotted in Confidence.

The story trucks along nicely and it easy enough to while away the time in front of. What it doesn’t manage to do is get performances out of the leads that make it captivating rather than watchable. Norton’s been making it pretty clear that he’s only present due to Paramount threatening to sue him over a breech of contract if he didn’t, and he responds with a suitably bored performance. His moustache actually acts better than he does, and it’s difficult to get any real feeling of desire to see his comeuppance when he’s so bland as a character. Wahlberg is left to supply the personality for the two and he’s not quite up to the task apart from those opening exchanges with Sutherland.

Relief is provided by the supporting cast who gel far better with themselves than they do with their leader. Seth Green manages to be amusing when he’s not bitching about Napster being stolen from him during his college days (prompting a daft flashback cameo appearance from actual Napster creator Shawn Fanning, which has to be the most obscure cameo of the decade). The one exception is his eventual insistence that he be known by a nickname ala everyone else, demanding to be known as The Real Napster. Statham is used correctly for once, not having to throw on some daft accent as heard in The One or The Transporter. The only problem he has is he’s not on screen enough, but his Handsome Rob shtick is one of the few real nods to the off-beat characters of the first film and it’ll be appreciated by fans of the original, although it’s hardly stretching Statham’s acting muscles.

Charlize Theron is relied on to do most of the emoting, having lost a father to the mildly villainous Steve yet having to restrain her emotions for the good of the heist. While undeniably gorgeous it’s also nice to see a strong female character in the movie of this ilk that is competent, capable and serves a purpose other than mere eye candy and that’s a strong plus for director Gray and the writing team. Mos Def continues to impress as one of the best supporting acts working today, rapper or no. Seeming to understand that he might not yet stretch to a full role, he’s thrown himself fully into the minor roles of Monsters Ball and Brown Sugar to the extent that he’s almost the standout stars of both.

Overall, it’s a decent yet average acting performance all in. The plot is relentlessly decent, albeit average. The stunt driving is entertaining but doesn’t hit as many high points as I’d expected. Which would make it decent yet average. I sense a recurring theme. The editing is slick and F. Gary Gray has shown enough touches even in mis-fires like A Man Apart to be regarded as a director to keep an eye on, but it’s slickness can’t make up for the fact that it’s missing a vital spark to push it from being merely entertaining to being something enduring.

This is not a bad film. If a quick search and replace of the script removed the references to Bridger and Croker and the name changed to something like Goldbricking (ahem) I’d be happy enough with what is certainly an ‘above average’ film, even if only slightly. The problem for me and everyone else with such a love of the original is that the word ‘average’ is in the description of the remake. It manages to avoid mangling the movies intention so it’s never annoying to watch, but it doesn’t capture the quirky wit of the original except in a very few isolated incidents. They look out of place, and perhaps rightfully so. Part of the appeal of the original was it captured a highly stylised essence of the times, so it hasn’t so much aged as become a celluloid time capsule of sorts.

Decent as the new version is, I can’t say it captures the essence of our times. Nothing has, probably because we’re not going to have any idea what the essence of our time is until we can look back on it from some comfortable vantage point in ten years time. I may be proved wrong but I doubt that this new version will be looked back on from then with the same fondness people do to this day with the 1969 outing. It’s decent but it isn’t memorable and that’s a great shame. It doesn’t have the same sense of fun, and while the concept of ‘cool’ is somewhat nebulous this film doesn’t have it. Despite the markings on my ticket stub this is not The Italian Job, but it is a decent, slightly above average film. Hardly a glowing recommendation but so much better than the disasters I had imagined, and for the people who haven’t seen the original much of my moaning above is rendered null and void.

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