The Good Thief Review
Read an alternative review by Mark Boydell (Region 2 DVD)
With The Good Thief, director Neil Jordan sets out to make a caper movie with a gritty, indie sensibility and partially succeeds. This is an intriguing and seductive film whose strongest point is its jaded Gallic atmosphere. It's a pleasure to watch and listen to, even if the ingredients don't quite blend into a satisfying whole.
Nick Nolte, looking more like a wounded grizzly bear than ever, plays Bob, an American art thief living in Nice. Bob's given up the criminal life but he's still a slave to his vices - gambling and heroin. Losing everything on a bad day at the track, he agrees to arrange one last heist, relieving a casino in Monte Carlo of a set of priceless paintings. He works out a plan and assembles a crew from his friends in the local underworld. Keeping a watchful eye on Bob's movements are local cop Roger (Tchéky Karyo), who likes the old scoundrel but is prepared to put him away if he catches him going back to his old ways, and slimy club-owner and pimp Remi (Marc Lavoine). Also adding to his troubles is Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a pouting Bosnian teenager Bob rescues from Remi. She proves a major distraction for the younger team members but seems to have eyes only for Bob himself.
A casino heist isn't an unusual set-up for a caper movie and there have been a lot of those lately but Jordan, who wrote the script as well as directed, approaches the familiar genre from a fresh angle. His thieves aren't the supercool elite of Ocean's Eleven or even the seasoned pros of The Score, they're illegal immigrants, drug dealers and addicts, which is logical since a low-life like Bob wouldn't have a lot of top international safe-crackers in his social circle. When he does manage to add a couple of pros to his team, one of them turns out to be half-way through a sex-change operation!
Jordan experiments with an interesting, rather arty directing style and he zips through the dialogue so fast you really have to pay attention. He also makes magnificent use of his French locations. The Côte-d'Azur was recently the setting of the slick action movie The Transporter but the two films might as well be set on different planets. Corey Yuen and Luc Besson portrayed it as a sun-baked Mediterranean paradise (explosions aside) while Jordan sees a seamy, twilight world of tacky bars, cheap criminals and exploited immigrants. Chris Menges' cinematography is outstanding and the film's mood is ably supported by a well-chosen soundtrack, which ranges from the Chemical Brothers to Serge Gainsbourg, via Leonard Cohen and Bono.
Nolte, who has never been afraid to play weak and fallible characters, is well cast as the ageing rogue. He expertly conveys a man who is never quite in control of the situation and survives on charm alone. Veteran French actor Tchéky Karyo makes an likeable foil for Nolte and Russian newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze is a fetching nymphet, though the film is a little vague about her relationship with Bob, perhaps in deference to their forty-year age gap. Ralph Fiennes has a memorable supporting role as an unscrupulous art dealer with a nasty streak. "What I do to your faces," he warns Bob and Anne, "will definitely be cubist".
The twist ending is a bit of a sticking point. Without spoiling the plot, a character pulls off something which may be theoretically possible but to all intents and purposes cannot be done, and certainly couldn't be done by the character in question. In a slicker picture like Ocean's Eleven it wouldn't matter but Jordan has done such a good job of establishing believable people and situations that it feels like a cheat. Never mind, it's not a fatal flaw. The Good Thief's parts may be greater than the whole but those parts are worth coming for.