Crimes and Misdemeanors

Style doesn't bail out The Good Thief

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click to enlarge MEA CULPA: Nick Nolte and Tcheky Karyo in The - Good Thief. - DAVID APPLEBY
DAVID APPLEBY
MEA CULPA: Nick Nolte and Tcheky Karyo in The Good Thief.

As if it all weren't already obvious enough, Nick Nolte eventually takes a moment in The Good Thief to fill us in on the exact meaning of the movie's title. The good thief, as you may have already guessed, refers to the biblical criminal who wound up hanging on a cross next to Jesus. His sins, be they large or small, many or few, aren't at all important, at least not to the tale as related by Nolte's character. The important bit is that this otherwise insignificant law-breaker of yore was noticed by Jesus and personally assured that he would soon be with him in Paradise.

It's no wonder the story's a favorite of the character played by Nolte, an aging gentlemen outlaw who's done a lot of bad things in his time but is clearly still in the market for redemption. Nolte's Bob is a habitual gambler, a swindler and a junkie; but he's also kind to his friends, has good taste in art and likes to help out the occasional stray damsel in distress. He's basically a good egg, albeit a noticeably cracked one, and it's only the fact that his luck seems to have finally bottomed out that leads him to attempt that One Last Heist that fuels the plot of The Good Thief.

Nolte is only part of the considerable pedigree attached to The Good Thief. The movie is directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Company of Wolves) and is based on Jean Pierre Melville's magnificent 1955 gangster noir Bob Le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler). Jordan transposes the nocturnal elegance of 1950s Paris to the sunny south of modern day France, setting his movie in Nice and various spots, both seedy and high class, along the Riviera.

Melville's original film was the epitome of everything cool and romantic and slightly dangerous about the Paris of its day and The Good Thief seems desperate to conjure up an equivalent feel for France in the here and now. It's not really fair to compare the new movie to Melville's masterpiece, but even if you don't know a thing about Bob Le Flambeur, Jordan's film would still come up short.

The Good Thief takes place in a decidedly less kind and gentle France of vendettas, lap dances and quick fixes, where the street is dominated by immigrant culture (Arab hustlers and Bosnian prostitutes are the principal signifiers here). This is a new France, so tough and aggressively quirky it might best be personified by the transgendered female body builder Jordan throws in as one of the members of Bob's crew.

The local color is pleasantly exotic and a few of the cameos are amusing enough (Ralph Fiennes as a reptilian art fence and director Emir Kusterica as an unscrupulous techno-wizard), but the real reason to watch The Good Thief is Nolte himself. The actor's ravaged face and croak of a voice are a perfect fit with Bob's world-weary persona, while Nolte's real-life history is close enough to that of his character's to add a whole other level of resonance to the role.

Other than that, there's not too terribly much going on here. As in Melville's films, there's a cop on our antihero's tail who serves as his alter ego (John Woo later put his own exaggerated spin on this "flaming brother" motif), but Jordan doesn't add anything new to the mix. The movie is content to basically just coast along, propelled by a self-consciously hip style and a blaring soundtrack fusing French hip-hop, Arabic Rai music and a painfully obvious Bono cover of "That's Life."

Jordan periodically ends a scene by briefly freezing the final image, as if he's trying to alert us to the iconic nature of his material by artificially extending the natural life span of a certain face or action. It's an interesting effect the first few times we see it, but it quickly becomes just another empty, stylistic tick in a movie that doesn't seem to have sufficient faith in the subtleties of its own story.

Even more problematic, Jordan seems to doubt the abilities of his audience to pick up on those subtleties. "Win or lose," says Bob at the end of his Big Heist, "do them both with grace." True enough, but isn't it just another failure of grace and style to have to come right out and say so?

Stale NoirThere's a fine line between the sleepy-eyed, understated screen presence of a Nick Nolte or a Robert Mitchum and complete non-expression. Falling neatly into that latter category we have Edward Burns, who, along with Ben Affleck, has the dubious distinction of being one of the blandest actors of his generation.

Burns is the black hole at the center of Confidence, yet another heist movie recycling familiar bits and pieces of Tarantino, David Mamet and old fashioned film noir. The blood and guts are all Tarantino's, the terse, stylized language is straight out of Mamet and the movie's form is pure noir. The film's opening gambit is the revelation that our hero and narrator is in fact already dead and the story's apparently being told from beyond the grave — one of the oldest tricks in the noir book.

Burns plays Jake Vig, a slick grifter who eventually fleeces the wrong guy and winds up working a scam by way of paying off a debt to a jumpy and very strange little gangster (played to the hilt by Dustin Hoffman). Hoffman's by far the best thing about the movie, but Confidence crams itself with other eccentric characters worth a look or two. Andy Garcia turns up, looking almost as grizzled as Hoffman, as a special agent on Burns' trail and Rachel Weisz is appropriately enigmatic as the movie's obligatory femme fatale.

Equally inevitable with material like this are all manner of double and triple crosses, and in Confidence it's just a matter of when and how. Everybody in the movie is morally flexible and a sleaze of one sort of another, and the movie doesn't distinguish between them very effectively. How likeable the characters are seems to depend largely upon how square their jaws are or how high their cheekbones. The film's plot ultimately just boils down to the convoluted mechanics of the various scams and heists that occur and the characters simply aren't appealing or human enough to make us really care about too much of it.

Confidence was directed by old noir hand James Foley (After Dark, My Sweet), who lights the film's interiors in ghoulish reds and greens right out of Glengarry Glen Ross, but doesn't quite know how to save the movie. Doug Jung's lazy script relies way too heavily on flashbacks, voice-overs and bits of cutsey noir nostalgia like referring to women as "skirts." There are flashes of cleverness, and even the stray inspiration (Hoffman's performance chief among them), but the movie mostly just comes across as a slightly-better-than-perfunctory exercise in noir form and style.

More Film Festivals! Finally caught your breath from the recent whirlwind of activity provided by the Tampa International Film Festival and Ybor Festival of the Moving Image? Well, don't get too comfortable. The Third Annual TamBay Film Festival rolls into town April 25-28 with dozens of new films for your viewing pleasure.

The focus of the TamBay Film Festival is on independent filmmaking, and numerous short animations, student films and documentaries will be screened along with the features that make up the core of the festival. All screenings will take place at Channelside Cinemas, in their continued effort to support worthwhile local events like this.

Highlights of this year's TamBay Film Festival include Brad Gottfred's The Movie Hero, a quirky tale of a man convinced that his life is really a movie (April 27, 5 p.m.) and Raging Bells (April 28, 8pm), a thriller about a serial killer stalking Tampa Bay. A pair of mockumentaries on genre filmmakers also sound like good fun: B-Movie (April 25, 8 p.m.) and Bleed (April 26, 9:15 p.m.).

Among the most intriguing-sounding documentaries are Untouchables versus Aryans: Battle for the Soul of India (April 27, 12:30) and On the Street (April 25, 4 p.m.), a look at street performers in Brazil. The festival's special events will include an animation seminar on April 26 at 4 p.m., and a panel titled How to Make a Feature Film on $10 an Hour featuring first-time director Lisa Stoll with the cast and crew of her film If (April 26, 6 p.m.). The panel will take place after the screening of Stoll's movie, a boy-meets-girl variation in which the boy turns out to be a clone. Mom apparently disapproves.

Individual tickets to the screenings are $7.50 for adults, $5.50 for students and seniors. Day passes for the festival are available for $15. For more information visit the festival's web site at www.tambayfilmfest.com.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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