Stealing The Show

As a classy drug addict, Nick Nolte gives viewers a fix of earthy excellence in 'The Good Thief.'

Movie Reviews

April 18, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In The Good Thief, Nick Nolte is gnarly, growly - and great.

At once earthy and off in the ether, he oozes the prodigal sensuality and boozy authority that Americans tolerate better in writers or musicians than in actors. Because Nolte, recently arrested for driving under the influence, plays a classy junkie in this movie, it will be tempting to chalk up his immediate veracity in the title role to his addictive experience. But Nolte's gambler-bandit Bob Montagnet is a triumph of imagination, touched with electric existential poetry.

Playing an elder statesman of the demimonde in sun-kissed Nice, France - the son, he says, of a French mother and an American father - Nolte modulates his lower register and choreographs his burly gait like a gutsy, grassroots song-and-dance man who's acquired rough-hewn elegance on the Continent. Nolte's Bob has a soul-deep self-awareness that rises to a towering elan. At the movie's start, you can't make out his words, but you hear the melancholy music in his voice as he takes in everything around him from a psychic periscope more unerring than his bleary eyes.

His reflexes stay acute even when his luck runs out and he physically scrapes bottom; he's keen enough to save the life of an old-buddy cop named Roger (the superbly warm and wary Tcheky Karyo) from a jittery illegal-immigrant punk. The plot tells what happens after Bob loses his last 70,000 francs on a horse and teams up with his old partner Raoul (street-dapper Gerard Darmon) to knock over a Monte Carlo casino. The target isn't the casino's bank but its art collection. The double and triple crosses start when Bob uses the prospect of cleaning out the house as a decoy operation.

Bob walks a tightrope through catastrophes and draws on every instinct and all his understanding of men, women, gamesmanship and art to stay balanced. He goes cold turkey after he decides to head up Raoul's casino job. To get clean he makes his new protege, a young Eastern European woman named Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze) - the ambiguous lover of his young sidekick, the Bob-adoring Paulo (Said Taghmaouri) - handcuff him to his bedstand and supply him with ice cream. What's paradoxical, and increasingly thrilling and hilarious, is that Bob becomes trickier as his devious brow clears and his obfuscating speech grows more intelligible. Karyo gets you to feel the ambivalence in that good cop Roger as he sees his friend shape up; he knows he may soon have to ship Bob off to prison again.

Fate spills blood and wrecks a life or two before the show is over. But those sick of film-noir moroseness should know that writer-director Neil Jordan, freely adapting Jean-Pierre Melville's Gallic crime-film reverie Bob le Flambeur (1955), brings this movie the arc of a fable in which the people we care most about live as happily ever after as it gets in the world of cops, crooks and high-rollers. Jordan (The Crying Game, The End of the Affair) both quotes from Melville's script expertly and conjures a magical climax all his own. Bob really proves to be Anne's "masculine ideal," able to bring her "the moon."

Part of what makes this update of Melville so appealing is its view of an American impressing Frenchmen with his taste and style. Bob's "soul" is a Picasso painting he says he won from the artist in a bet on a bullfight. Melville's old-school Bob, played by Roger Duchesne as a gracefully aging urban knight, embodied a strict personal code with details as simple and secure as the belt tied around his trenchcoat.

Nolte's Bob (and Jordan's) shares the 1955 Bob's disdain for brutal pimps and gallantry toward women, but he's more outward looking and eclectic. He appreciates beauty, craft and inventiveness of every type: the tough-willow allure of Kukhianidze's Anne; the bold, century-spanning pilfering to be found in Picasso's lesser and best work; the technological mastery of a Russian security-systems expert, Vladimir (played by Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica), who wants to be a rock star and plays with computer-guided lasers as if picking chords on his electric guitar.

The movie doesn't take itself too seriously - Ralph Fiennes, displaying glorious sleazy gusto as an art fence, tells Bob that if he and his partners don't repay a debt, "What I do to your faces will definitely be Cubist." Yet the movie is all of a piece, and it captures something rare: a state of happy, vital obsession. Chris Menges' amazing cinematography is all about real and artificial light pouring into the nooks and crannies of aging faces and facades; Jordan's deft plotting is about improvisation invading a fine mesh of schemes.

Jordan's direction and Nolte's performance focus on a man intuitive enough to find the sunlight between insurmountable obstacles. Gambling is one addiction Bob doesn't recover from, but rather recovers into; it's the art that revives his life, and he takes it to the limit on principle. This movie about a gambler-as-artist is more persuasive as well as more entertaining than such portraits of painters as Frida and Pollock, and it's blissfully free of moralizing or pedantry. Viewers may grow to feel as affectionate for Nolte in this movie as for the brilliant black sheep in any family. If you have an artistic or anarchistic bone in your body, this Bob's your uncle.

The Good Thief

Starring Nick Nolte

Directed by Neil Jordan

Rated R

Released by Fox Searchlight

Time 109 minutes

Sun Score ****

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