An elaborate techno-heist thriller, The Italian Job features some spectacular chase scenes, but for a change, the people doing the chasing are also worth watching. It’s rare in this Jerry Bruckheimer era of slam-bang pyrotechnics that an action picture offers up characterizations that are more than just vanity poses.
Based on a 1969 movie that is remembered mostly for a cast that included Michael Caine and Noël Coward, this (loose) remake likewise hums along on the strength of its actors. F. Gary Gray, directing from a script by Donna and Wayne Powers, deliberately presents the performers—Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Mos Def, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Donald Sutherland, and Seth Green—as if they were low-wattage contract players. This unglamorous approach has the odd effect of making them seem more glamorous—we’re free to soak up their star quality because there’s no hard sell to fight off.
Gray keeps the explicit violence to a minimum, and this, too, is a rarity in the genre these days. The plot is set in motion when a gang of thieves, masterminded by Wahlberg’s Charlie Croker, is betrayed by one of its members, Edward Norton’s Steve Frezelli, in the wake of a daring heist in Venice of $35 million in gold bullion. Frezelli has offed the gang’s father figure, John Bridger (Sutherland), and, believing he’s dispatched the other gang members as well, attempts to fence the loot in Los Angeles. The movie is about how a double-crosser gets triple-crossed. By locating much of the action in L.A., with its car-clogged thoroughfares, the filmmakers offer up a rich joke: The city, after all, is a built-in impediment to a speedy escape. There’s a terrific moment when Statham’s Handsome Rob, the British-born getaway expert, sits in traffic and looks as if he would do anything, even go straight, in order to levitate.
Like Rob, every member of the gang has a criminal specialty. By far the most captivating crook is Seth Green’s Lyle, who turns the generic role of computer-nerd genius into a comic tour de force. Lyle harbors a grudge against the former college roommate he believes stole the idea of Napster from him. He reaches the height of his finesse when he reroutes street congestion by controlling the timing of traffic lights. “You will never shut down the real Napster,” he proudly messages the city authorities. Green shows us the Robin Hood—and the robber baron—festering inside every geek wizard.
The Italian Job has its share of plodding exposition. Even the expert car-chase scenes, which often feature pint-size British Mini Coopers, feel too long. But that’s mostly because the human-interest bits are so much more fun. It’s a real switch: Instead of enduring the character stuff until we return to the action, we wait for the chases to be over so that we can get back to the people.
I have well-meaning colleagues who believe that Adrien Brody, even with his Oscar, is too “ethnic”—i.e., too Jewish—to ever become a star. Nonsense. It’s true that Hollywood is inhospitable to practically everything out of the ordinary these days, from a story’s subject matter to an actor’s looks, but that doesn’t mean that a performer as ferociously gifted as Brody can’t create his own reason-for-being. A much bigger problem for Brody is the movies he chooses to appear in—excepting, of course, The Pianist, where he not only looked but acted hauntingly like a Polish Jew from that war-torn era. In Peter Sehr’s Love the Hard Way, Brody plays a petty crook with perpetually bad hair who breaks the heart of a dreamy Columbia coed (the affecting Charlotte Ayanna) while quoting Kerouac and saying things like “I don’t deserve your tears.” He doesn’t deserve this movie, either.