Neil Jordan is a talented filmmaker with plenty of critical hits – Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy – and an equal number of misses – Interview With the Vampire, High Spirits, In Dreams. And star Nick Nolte, well, you either like him or you don't, and I usually don't. So walking into my local theatre to see The Good Thief, I had mixed expectations. But what can I say? The trailer piqued my interest. As did the appealing newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze, a young Georgian actress who ranks up there with Jordan's other notable discoveries, Cathy Tyson and Jaye Davidson.
It's not entirely flippant to go on about the cast when reviewing a Neil Jordan film; part of the director's charms are his unusual casting choices, and The Good Thief is a treasure trove of interesting faces, including French-Moroccan actor Said Taghmaoui (so good in Three Kings as Mark Wahlberg's Iraqi tormentor), Serbian director Emir Kusturica, an uncredited Ralph Fiennes, identical twins Mark and Michael Polish (who cast Nolte in their 2003 feature Northfork).
Nolte plays Bob, a strung-out former thief who has lapsed into a gloomy semi-retirement as a gambler and junkie on the French Riviera. When the sexy but lost young hooker Anne (Kukhianidze) falls into his lap, he suddenly finds himself a father figure to her. But as soon as Bob decides to clean up his act, the quintessential "last big job" is offered to him: stealing several priceless works of art that are held in a private vault across from a casino that hangs duplicates of the paintings on their own walls.
Thus begins a complicated but engaging series of twists, turns, and double-crosses, with all the elements of a proper heist film: colorful gang of thieves, frustrated cops, and will-they-or-won't-they-get-away-with-it suspense. But Jordan is aiming for more of a character portrait than a standard crime caper; after a while you realize that Bob doesn't even care that much about whether his heist succeeds. Which really throws any plot second-guessing out the window.
The Good Thief is a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur, and Jordan cheekily acknowledges this by crafting a film rife with duplicates, forgeries, and copycats. This conceit is both clever and entertaining. The only things I didn't much care for were Jordan's stylistic flourishes – freeze-framing several shots and step-processing others. They don't work against the story, but they seem like Wong Kar Wai ripoffs. Oh well, as they say in the film, the greatest thief that ever lived was Pablo Picasso. So why should we mind one good artist stealing from another?