You can't fake self-confidence, but The Good Thief tries so hard to do so that it ends up an endearing movie as well as a curiously empty one. I mean, you gotta love its effort. When the mediocre reviews pour in, I suspect that director Neil Jordan will be confused. He's got a film whose tough characters have hidden flaws and weaknesses, whose look brims with energy and sizzles on the screen. And Nick Nolte is here playing a drug addict with weariness of himself, as if the actor is using a fictional character to redeem his own recent run-ins with the law. Isn't this the sort of thing that normally gets great notices and has everybody talking about a career comeback for the star?
Well, yeah, it is, but still. The problem with the movie is not what it contains, but why. It's hard not to get the feeling that The Good Thief is ticking off a checklist of things that make a deep and edgy crime pic. All the elements are there, but they don't seem to fit. Even the central conceit of the plot, spelled out to us in dialogue, ends up being confusing until the clarification of the final scenes.
Nolte plays Bob, a former expert thief and gambler now living a pathetic existence as a heroin-addicted barfly in the south of France. His nest egg is good enough to get him a decent villa and an eager young sidekick named Paolo (Said Taghmaoui). Occasionally interrupting the existence of these two guys is Roger (Tchéky Karyo), a cop who wants to make sure that Bob isn't planning any new jobs. He pops up now and again, making veiled suggestions and bringing up quick parables from past experience, in the kind of respectful, playful, gamesmanlike way that movie detectives do when aware they are in high class crime fiction.
Also on the sidelines is Anne (Nutsa Kukhiani), a Russian teenage runaway with a gift for appearing both helpless and aloof. She embodies seeming sexy, provocative and a danger to herself -- Paolo falls in a pathetic kind of love with her, which she reciprocates with sex but not affection, and Bob tries to do as much as he can to act like a father figure.
After a few stretches of hanging around with the characters and absorbing the cinematically stylish version of their seedy atmosphere, the plot gets in motion. Bob has a plan to rob a Monte Carlo casino, but he's gonna allow leaks from the gang to the cops, because of something to do with a bluff operation involving the safe and some fake paintings and real paintings being somewhere else... or something. A speech near the beginning of the movie explains it all in detail, but the plan is still impossible to follow -- the ending makes the beauty of it clear, and brings a smile to the face, and then the details have faded five minutes after you've left the cinema. Yeah, it's one of those.
My companion and I were not sure if the story was supposed to be confusing and would reveal itself later on, or whether the movie was spelling out its convolutions early in the running time so it could get the details out of the way and concentrate on character development and ambience. It doesn't really matter, because The Good Thief has bigger problems. The look of the thing is awash in vibrant neon colour, with shadows all around it. It moves at a fast pace, there are sleek camera moves, and the technical flourishes include occasional freeze-frames at the ends of certain scenes, just to give us a little jolt. Even the credits scream invention and hipness -- they're bright white letters, thin and rough, quivering a little with a mood of anticipation. All of this is pleasing, until we wonder why it's being employed. The techniques play like a sideshow, with many cute devices used in throwaway moments, and none for storytelling.
The dialogue snaps and dances, expresses cynical attitudes and trails off into pearls of wisdom and snippets of challenge -- you can feel it straining to capture film noir essence and be memorable, but friends, I confess that I cannot remember a single line. Even as window dressing, it would be fun, if Jordan had cast the right actors. But Taghmaoui and Kukhiani, for all their presence, end up mumbling their passages, and give the impression of Europeans who would be comfortable making points with basic English. Their lines seem imposed by filmmakers, and more than anything else, the speech in the movie tips us off to how hard The Good Thief is trying to be something it is not.
Film scholars of inordinate dedication will notice that the situation and characters here have been heavily inspired by Bob le Flambeur, a highly acclaimed Jean-Pierre Melville movie from 1955. The more I read about that film, the more The Good Thief sounds like a close remake, and the more I want to see the original. French cinema of that period used wit and new approaches in style in order to worship familiar movie images while creating a feeling of breaking free from the methodical. The Good Thief is conscious of the fact that it is a movie, and is jazzed about its own technique, but that's not quite the same, now is it?
(Released by Fox Searchlight and rated "R" for language, sexuality, drug content and some violence.)
Review also posted at www.ukcritic.com.