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The Italian Job By Matt Singer
The commercials and trailers for The Italian Job seemed to give the whole movie away: who got killed by whom; who tries to steal from whom, and so on. In fact, after seeing a single trailer for the film, one gets the impression that they have pretty much seen the entire thing in about three minutes (And, indeed, there aren’t too many twists that haven’t already been ruined by the marketing). Surprisingly, it doesn’t matter one bit. The Italian Job is still a highly entertaining crime thriller; stylish, charming, and surprisingly good.
The story, which you already know if you pay attention to movie commercials or show up early to the theater, is your typical revenge plot. A bunch of honorable thieves have their $35 million worth of gold stolen by the one rat in the lot, Steve (Edward Norton). A year later the survivors regroup to take back the gold. The team include Mark Wahlberg as Charlie, the well-muscled but bland leader, and Charlize Theron as Stella, safecracker and daughter of a fallen comrade. The smaller supporting roles in the group are filled by Seth Green, Jason Statham, and Mos Def, all smooth and witty as the brains, wheels, and explosives of the operation. Green, always a sidekick never a, um, side, is Lyle, the computer genius who created Napster, only to see his roommate steal the idea while he was sleeping (Hence the name “nap”ster). Statham, on the other hand, got his own vehicle in The Transporter, but that movie was just a wretched mess. Here he works well as part of the ensemble playing Handsome Rob, yet another play on Statham’s onscreen working class ladies man persona. Theron’s performance is better than some she’s given recently, but the script could do more with her character; the only “solid citizen” in a bunch of crooks who is learning the ropes of thievery.
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Norton had a well-publicized spat about The Italian Job; he was required to make the film to fulfill a contract obligation against his wishes. Ironically, the contempt he feels for the project is channeled through his characterization of Steve, who has contempt for his former friends, his current business partners, the women he hits on, etc. He has a thin mustache and little doodad of hair underneath his lip, and he sweats sleaziness from every pore. Spite for everyone and everything does not equal dangerousness, and we don’t really feel that he is a serious threat to our heroes. That may have caused a problem in another film, but we already know how the heist is going to turn out, so it doesn’t much matter.
Aside from the majority of performances (Wahlberg is the only cast member who doesn’t really connect; his zen-like cool just tends to come off as boredom), the real source of entertainment is F. Gary Gray’s direction, which is just as peppy as the Mini Coopers that provide getaway cars for our heisting heroes. Like the crooks, he revels in the gadgetry, in the sly thrill of pulling it off. For scenes like the massive traffic jam in Los Angeles that helps the crew get back their gold, Gray and his crew actually caused a massive traffic jam. Having the power to do that, even for a movie, has got to be a thrill.
The Italian Job’s plot is not surprising, but its wealth of charms are. A movie this formulaic, based on an old movie, with a cast that didn’t all want to be involved, shouldn’t be this good, but it is. The script by Donna and Wayne Powers wrings laughs out of old situations and develops its characters effectively with a minimum screentime. It does not reinvent the wheel, or even the car chase, but it does what it does well, and in a movie market that includes films like Dumb and Dumberer, that feels like a big achievement.