The Score (2001)

D: Frank Oz
S: Ed Norton, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando

Entertaining caper movie headlining three of the most highly regarded living American actors of their respective generations. Veteran burglar Robert De Niro (Meet the Parents) is asked by regular associate and backer Marlon Brando (The Island of Dr. Moreau) to take part in a job scouted by up and coming thief Ed Norton (Fight Club). De Niro wants out of the racket, hoping this last, massive score will set him up in his Montréal Jazz club with love interest Angela Bassett (Contact). Brando, for his part, has shading backstage dealings which require a large cash injection to get him out of a hole. Norton, meanwhile, is eager to make a name for himself and determined to be taken seriously by the aged pros with whom he is working. The prize: a priceless (of course) French sceptre ensconced in the basement of the Montréal customs house.

This is a slickly made picture, thoroughly professional in all respects and directed with surprisingly consistency by Frank Oz (In & Out, Bowfinger). It is a solid action adventure yarn which supplies the requisite danger, suspense, double-cross, and hi-tech derring do in the spirit of the great caper pics of the past. This genre has been experiencing something of a revival of late, with films like Entrapment, Ronin, Mission: Impossible and even Small Time Crooks feeding off its familiar vibes. Although it does not take much to make a caper movie work reasonably well, it can be done very badly too, especially when an all-star cast is in the offing. Thankfully although this film does not tax any of its heavyweight cast, it does not sit back and rely on their presence either.

The script has been written by one of those small committees so favoured by the studios of late, but TV writer Kario Salem receives both story and screenplay credits. It provides a solid grounding for the rest of the film. There is a straightforward plot, some colourful but not outrageous characters, interesting and relatively low-key set pieces, and it finds plenty of obstacles to hurl in the way of the robbers before they can claim their prize. The details are unimportant and best left to an actual viewing. Watching the intricacies of the plan unfold is part of the pleasure of the caper movie anyway, so why spoil the fun?

A great number of cool or mediocre reviews for the film seem to have come from unrealistic expectations of what its stars were going to do. This is a genre movie by a director who usually delivers solid middle-of-the-road entertainments. Why should the mere presence of earthbound thespian gods De Niro and Brando make the film more profound or significant? All three of the leading actors are good in their roles. They bring life and character to the parts as written and they do succeed in slightly deepening them. The range of gestures and expressions (and in Brando's case, vocal mannerisms) manages to give an impression of realism in the midst of potboiler settings, and though no one would make claims that this is the natural successor to On the Waterfront or Raging Bull, it is kind of fun to see De Niro and Brando together. De Niro essentially does another in an increasingly long line of grumpy individualists. His recent performances have been less challenging and exciting than his admirers would like, but he is certainly hard working. Brando actually seems to be having a lot of fun doing a kind of more pathetic variant on Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. He is not painful to watch, which is a plus given certain of his recent big screen appearances. Norton is playing a younger and more jittery character than either of the others and thus doesn't have the gravitas of his co-stars. He is still well up to the challenge of playing against them though and is also convincing. As if pre-empting criticism, Oz also provides several opportunities for all three to act in the one place and at the one time. But unlike Michael Mann in Heat, he doesn't stop the film in its tracks and await your awed response to the teaming. The ensemble scenes are part of the action, providing exposition, development, and drama necessary to advance the movie.

Basset, herself a reckonable force in contemporary acting (although poor choices of roles have kept her relatively sidelined given her Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe winning turn in What's Love Got to do With It?), is literally and figuratively sidelined of course, prompting inevitable commentary about both female and black female roles. Valid though the criticism may be, the sidelining does not hurt the film. The character has a natural place in the drama which the actor imbues with an important level of dignity and strength. This helps to keep the edges of the film from fraying.

The Score is big, dumb fun in the mould of Enemy of the State. It has a veneer of sophistication and enough wit to make it worth taking seriously on its own level, and there are enough twists and turns to satisfy the average punter. It is a shame really that the movie was dumped on quite so much by so many, as there are plenty of worse variants on this same formula out there which have a lot less to offer.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.