The Good Thief (2003)

D: Neil Jordan
S: Nick Nolte, Tcheky Kayro

Stylish remake of Bob Le Flambeur which has either the fortune or misfortune to appear after Steven Soderbergh's remake of Ocean's Eleven , depending on your preference for either. The fact that one original was made by a French artist (Jean-Pierre Melville) and the other by a Hollywood artisan (Russian born Lewis Milestone) is guidance enough to the differences, though it is perhaps too simplistic a rekindling of the old art vs. commerce debate. Jordan's film is grungy and atmospheric, features a primarily European cast mumbling its way through another of its director's characteristic meditations on the boundaries of masculinity at the fringes of society. Soderbergh's film was slick and peppy, featured an all-hunk Hollywood cast going through the motions of a by-the-numbers heist movie with throwaway romantic and thematic concerns as befits a big-budget spectacular. For some, Ocean's Eleven was the best fun they would have had all year. For them, The Good Thief will prove a dull disappointment. There are others for whom Ocean's Eleven represents the epitome of all evil. For them, The Good Thief will prove a refreshing antidote to the commercial formula. The truth of the film lies somewhere in between. The Good Thief is a relatively accomplished heist movie which has been mildly inflected with the deeper concerns of a director capable of greater heights (The Butcher Boy) and lower depths (High Spirits).

The story centres on the adventures of a French-born American expatriate ex-gambler (Nick Nolte) hooked on heroin and lost in the half-light of the French criminal underworld. When enlisted to pull off a tricky art robbery by an old acquaintance, Bob kicks the habit while resuming older, more profitable ones. Meanwhile cop Tcheky Kayro (Dobermann) pursues him closely, watching his old quarry for signs of his plan but largely unable to figure it out until it's too late. The mechanics of the caper movie give the narrative its engine, but Jordan and cinematographer Chris Menges create a rich visual environment which gives it a gravelly texture matching star Nolte's distinctive vocal tones. The star and the movie virtually merge as what eventually amounts to a character study interrupted by a genre movie takes its course with the help of an evocative, bleary-eyed performance from Nolte. The result is effective enough, although it makes its points pretty early on and has nowhere surprising to go before very long.

As you would expect from Irish director Jordan The Good Thief is loaded with subtextual concerns with morality, ethics, and notions of self and redemption. Religious imagery abounds, right down to the title itself (which draws its inspiration from the story of the two thieves crucified with Christ, one good and bound for heaven in spite of his crimes, the other skeptical and unredeemed). As with many of the director's previous features, the plot features a prominent female character in need of some kind of saving with whom the lead develops a spiritual connection, and the film on the whole concerns itself with one man's attempt to make sense of a world in which the rules seem to keep shifting.

The difference this time is that they shift because Bob embraces misdirection as his method, and the film reaches its climax with the potentially pithy observation that there is very little difference between a run of luck and a well-orchestrated plan which robs someone of their fortune. The only distinction, it would seem, is on the level of the deeper morality of one's intentions, which, in the case of this character, are essentially 'good' (though that is open to question given some of the racial and sexual dimensions of the plot). Jordan is able to balance these kinds of authorial concerns with the demands of conventional narrative, and though he does not wholly save the film from generic familiarity, there is enough to make it worth paying attention to and yield closer analysis in the context of the director's overall career. It is doubtful that he would make extravagant claims for its importance to him or to anyone else though, and is probably thus best approached in terms of a modest entertainment rather than a canonical text.

What can the average viewer expect? Well, if you can find your way through the thick stew of barely comprehensible accents, there is an entertaining but low key caper movie here. It comes up with one or two wrinkles you may not have seen before, and gives enough pointers to even the least perceptive of audiences that its sights lie a little above the level of superficiality on which this particular genre thrives (The Thomas Crown Affair, Entrapment). It will still probably play best to the kind of audience who gets a kick from seeing esteemed director Emir Kusturica playing a rock-guitar obsessed security consultant and for whom the constant soundtrack of French rap music has deeper meaning as a parody of Hollywood conventions than it does as a choice of soundscape (mind you the choice of a key Leonard Cohen track to represent its central character's dilemma really says all you need to say about him and his world). The Good Thief is an essentially modest and undemanding film which may be either too wildly praised or too indiscriminately condemned for it to find its feet at the box office. It is worth a look for fans of the star and/or director and is at least an interesting footnote in the return of the caper movie.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.