May 1, 2003

The Nolte Connection

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The Good Thief, Neil Jordan’s most recent movie, appears from afar to be another Ocean’s Eleven; a stylish heist film. The film tracks a mastermind heist, led by Bob (Nick Nolte) a former thief turned gambler, who has of late been down on his luck. Seemingly trapped without alternatives, Bob agrees to form a plan to steal from the Monaco casino.

Filmed in Nice and Monaco, one may think Thief aspires to simulate the same kind of alluring beauty and aura of cool that Melville’s Bob le Flambeur, the monumental film it is based on, exudes. But those hoping to be awed and entertained by fast and cunning gangsters will be disappointed. The film does not spend time glamorizing the underworld; the main characters consist of seedy junkies and pimps. And Nick Nolte’s voice is about as melodic as Tom Waits with bronchitis. The other characters aren’t any more soothing, but are so marred by their accents that it is hard to make out what they’re saying. The conglomerate of European actors in the movie speaking outside of their native languages does not do much to help in this area.

Without Melville’s cinematographic harmony, the elements remaining from the original, like Bob’s chain-smoking, become conspicuous and ironic, and replace the suave gangsters’ mannerisms in the original film. Behind Chris Henges’ camerawork, when the film occasionally speeds up the shots, capturing bodies in motion, it only shows how purposefully ungraceful Jordan’s film really is.

It’s not that the film isn’t captivating; there are anecdotes and clever lines, which sometimes smooth out Jordan’s hard style. But the unpronounced structure, which floats from one scene to the next, detracts from the suspense. At times one nearly forgets that it’s a heist that the movie is following, rather than the formless lives of its actors.

Indeed, the film is less homage to Melville’s masterpiece than a revision of it. While the film takes doubling as one of its themes, inviting questions about originality and authenticity, it has a different focus than the original. The plot is less tightly woven and Jordan is not preoccupied with exposition. Even elements key to the original, like the luck that Bob clearly depends upon in Melville’s movie to stay one step ahead of the odds against him, and which he also uses to battle the uncertainties of an unknown fate, are more veiled and decentralized in Jordan’s remake.

It is not hard to figure out why Jordan chose Nolte to play his lead. As an actor who was once prominent but has since fallen from glory, Nolte is a perfect symbol for someone who’s washed up. Jordan’s Bob acts with the experience of a life already lived, and is driven more to nonchalance by his indifference than by Melville’s code of existence.

Even though Jordan has been known to work within different styles, the film is a stylistic departure from Jordan’s biggest splash, The Crying Game. While Game also used conventional modes of love that are portrayed in movies, and turned them inside out by inserting a drag queen, that movie’s plain style is substituted for a more manipulated one, which alters the light and color of the picture.

Ultimately, Jordan intelligently redoes a classic film that is credited as of the first New Wave movies. But Jordan would have benefited by leaving some of Melville’s appeal, or rewriting it in his own style so the film would have had a little more pizzazz. Even Crying Game had more charm through its minimalism and the development of its storyline. And straining to hear what is being said is never fun. But the movie is well cast nevertheless, and Jordan has great awareness of film history. In my mind, while he only partially delivered this time, Jordan is one of the most masterful filmmakers working today.

Archived article by Andrew Altfest