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'The Italian Job'

Things go wrong, but 'Italian Job' works

Friday, May 30, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

A good heist movie usually demands that something go wrong for those perpetrating the robbery, and that everything go right in how the filmmakers tell the story.

 
 
'The Italian Job'

RATING: PG-13 for violence and some language.

STARRING: Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, Donald Sutherland.

DIRECTOR: F. Gary Gray.

Director's approach convinced Wahlberg to take 'Job'

   
 

"The Italian Job" fulfills both ends of the bargain as smoothly as any of the caper films that have spread across movie screens lately like jelly on toast.

This remake of a 1969 movie starring Michael Caine features two elaborate thefts. In the first, a gang of sophisticated crooks liberates a safe full of gold from a guarded room on the upper floor of a building in Venice. In the second, the same group (more or less) tries to steal the gold back from the man who took it from them.

If you've seen the trailer or the TV ad for the film, you already know more than you should -- they utterly ruin the suspense of the movie's opening gambit.

But director F. Gary Gray and screenwriters Donna and Wayne Powers handle the two heists very differently. The movie goes almost directly into the first one, the only prologue being a telephone call from ringleader John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) to his daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron). The brief conversation tells us all we need to know -- she doesn't want him to take the risk, he's been caught before, he's breezily confident, they love each other.

The second job lets us in on the elaborate planning by Bridger's protege, Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), and how the other members of the team do their jobs, which range from computer technology to telephone tapping to safecracking to the expert driving and modification of automobiles. That's all well and good, but the edge to these scenes comes from the fact that there is real personal animus between Croker's team and their target.

The bad guy turns out to be what spoils the first heist. And what goes wrong in the second? The kind of thing you can't plan for, something invariably mundane.

Director Gray, on the other hand, has everything well in hand. He stages two crackerjack chase scenes -- one on speedboats in the canals of Venice, the other in those tiny Mini Cooper cars on the impossibly crowded streets, sidewalks and subways of Los Angeles.

But the movie also captures the flavor of the two cities, and Gray introduces some colorful supporting characters who offer a sense of exotic peril and offbeat humor.

Most important, the movie exhibits a tone of cool professionalism with just a dash of hipness. These people thirst for revenge, but they also want to do it right. They get to use all kinds of high-tech gadgets but you seldom get the sense of boys playing with toys. These are men (and one woman) utilizing the very fancy tools of their trade.

The cast offers a finely tuned mixture of personality types. One look at Sutherland's craggy visage and his crooked smile and you feel like you're greeting a rascally old friend. Wahlberg, last seen pulling a very different kind of European scam in "The Truth About Charlie," is beginning to look very convincing as the boyishly handsome action star who relies more on brains than brawn.

Likewise, Theron lives more by her wits than by her looks -- not that anyone can complain about the latter. Edward Norton gives his character an intriguing blend of cheesy corruption, not unlike some of Steve Buscemi's lowlifes.

But the supporting players are also well drawn: Jason Statham as the sarcastic charmer Handsome Rob, Mos Def as explosives expert Left-Ear (he can't hear out of the right one), and Seth Green as computer geek Lyle, who claims he invented Napster but his college roommate stole it.

"The Italian Job" proves that, just as in a heist, attention to detail can make all the difference.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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