Rolling the dice on story of a gambling, thieving junkie

With remake of `The Good Thief,' Neil Jordan changes direction

April 24, 2003|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Neil Jordan is not a gambler, but he likes the idea of gambling.

"There's no more of a deeply romantic people than people who believe the entire world can change on a throw of the dice," Jordan says about his casino-heist film The Good Thief, which opened last Friday.

Jordan, a 53-year-old Irish director, takes his risks away from the tables. He received worldwide applause for 1992's The Crying Game, which delivered equal jolts of intrigue and sexual confusion. The movie earned six Academy Award nominations, including an Oscar for Jordan's screenplay.

He has pushed his chips beyond the politically charged as well, creating gothic-horror in Interview With the Vampire (1994) and old-fashioned romance in the wartime drama The End of the Affair (1999).

So now Jordan takes the ultimate gamble for an auteur who prides himself on originality: a remake. He adapted a low-budget 1955 French movie called Bob le Flambeur and spiced it up for the new French Riviera.

"There's a seedy grandeur there that I used to my advantage," says Jordan, who also wrote the screenplay.

Warner Bros. produced Jordan's Michael Collins (1996) and The Butcher Boy (1997) but balked at The Good Thief because the studio already had a casino-robbery flick - Ocean's Eleven - in the works. So Jordan ran with his new freedom, creating a film noir of heroes and villains who blur together. Most prominent, of course, is Bob, a likable gambler, thief and heroin addict who cannot resist a complicated score.

Jordan figures a protagonist junkie would have been problematic for an American studio. His choice to play Bob might have been, too. Nick Nolte has battled his own demons on the substance-abuse front recently. But what makes some Hollywood suits sweat made Jordan lick his chops.

"It's the kind of film that is the character," Jordan says. "So I needed an actor that was as close to that character as I could get."

Having Nolte helped keep the dark edges around the sun-baked Nice and Monte Carlo settings.

"The way I visually try to construct this film is through the eyes of a central character who's suffering a constant hangover, who gets up when the sun is gone," Jordan says.

Bob is not looking for redemption, and there are no guarantees that the teen-age hooker (Nutsa Kukhianidze) he protects in a fatherly way will cease having sex for money. While the underworld rats might scurry away at daybreak, The Good Thief lets us know they are always waiting to slither out of the walls once the sun dips below the Mediterranean.

In The Good Thief, Bob and his former crew plan to rob a casino not of its money but of its priceless art. Perfect copies of the masterworks hang in the casino, but Bob and crew stage a diversion there while they drill through the adjacent building that houses the originals.

"He would only get himself back into life with something so seemingly impossible," Jordan says of Bob's caper.

Jordan does not shrink from the word "remake." The basic elements of Bob le Flambeur remain, including Bob's complicated relationship with the local police chief (Tcheky Karyo).

Jordan tweaked the casino heist as his own conceit. Instead of having money as the target, he substituted the issue of fake and original art to comment on his own copying of an original film. Ultimately, Jordan says, the viewer might ask if there is any difference in value between the fake and the real.

The value of Bob's existence lies merely in the attempt at riches. A bad day at the track has left him desperate, so he really has nothing to lose.

Even if Cary Grant had waited 15 years and increased his martini intake to star in To Catch a Thief, one of Jordan's favorite caper films set on the Cote d'Azur, it would still not have approached the scruffy paradise of The Good Thief.

Now that Ireland's turmoil has eased, Jordan is out of the statement-making business - at least temporarily. (Michael Collins and The Crying Game are among his most memorable fims about the troubles in his native land.) He says he feels liberated making a movie for the fun of it. His characters in The Good Thief appear less encumbered, too.

"Most of the movies I've made have started light and gone dark," Jordan says. "This one did the opposite, in a way."

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