Mini cars, mini imaginations 

A review of The Italian Job

The Italian Job
Paramount pictures

What is it with mediocre heist films? A few weeks ago, it was Nick Nolte in The Good Thief, a few months before that was William H. Macy in Welcome To Collinwood, and now this, The Italian Job. Are Hollywood's puppet masters -- you know, the ones Ed Bircham would like to see killed in a Left Coast 9-11 -- tapping into a populist need to participate in high-tech crime? Say, the people's version of WorldCom, Enron and the rest?

Well, maybe that's a stretch. And don't get me wrong, heist films are a great recipe for comedy and suspense, a symbiotic relationship as fruitful as Dubya and the White House Press corps.

The Italian Job, to its credit, stars a cast of criminals you could actually bring home to Mom. It's a gang that doesn't shoot straight because it doesn't pack heat. Not only that, they rarely curse or fight. They even drive fuel-efficient European minis. Planning, patience and a word they continually stress, "imagination" -- that's what The Italian Jobbers are all about. By my estimate, all they're missing is the "Howard Dean, 2004" bumper sticker.

The film stars Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Croker, the gang's even-keeled crime coordinator. His team is composed of tech-savvy experts: rapper-actor (is there any other kind?) Mos Def as Left Ear, the explosives guy; Seth Green as a hacker extraordinaire forever ranting about having invented Napster; and Jason Statham as Handsome Rob, a Brit stud who masterminds the getaways.

The opening heist occurs in Venice with an elaborate safe pilfering, which is, whaddya know, a great opportunity for the speed boat chase to end all speed boat chases (yes, kiddies, Gondolas get capsized and those funny Italians start cursing). The job is a honking success thanks in part to the gang's avuncular safecracker John Bridger played by the ever-charming Donald Sutherland.

But things go awry when too-cool-for-school Steve Frezelli (Ed Norton) doublecrosses the gang and kills Bridger. The contents of the safe ($35 million worth of gold bricks) are absconded by Frezelli's cronies in the Austrian Alps.

Fast-forward one year and enter Charlize Theron as Sutherland's daughter Stella. Her hobbies include mocking Philadelphia speed limits in her mini, continuing her father's line of work (but for the police) and being really, really hot. Theron has proved that she can act, but she's given little to work with in this film. While Mos Def is the token black, Theron is the requisite chick on hand to siphon off the homoerotic tension that would otherwise froth over with such a gaggle of comely men in a womanless world.

Croker convinces Stella to avenge her father's death by helping the gang crack Frezelli's safe. "It's not about the gold," he tells her, but about her dad. Now living in a Los Angeles, the gang heads west and commences heist reconnaissance on Frezelli's mansion.

Like most heist films, the planning stage is the most satisfying. However, there's no tension in this film beyond the question, Will they pull it off? Norton is castigated not merely for his cold-bloodedness, but because he lacks imagination. So does the rest of the cast. Their lives are transparent, their relationships less developed than the cast of 90210. But when you have a car chase finale with three minis, three motorcycles, a helicopter that can navigate its way into a parking garage -- what more do you need?

Oh right, a happy ending.

The Italian Job is abetted by a graceful camera that slides and glides between states, countries and continents. The techno trance music pulls the rest of the load. This is not a bad ride, but if you remember anything about it by the time you get home from the multiplex, let me know.

There's no reason heist films have to be shallow or even just mildly funny. The greats like The Pink Panther, Take the Money and Run and The Ladykillers provide residual giggles for years. Director F. Gary Gray settles for something between slick and funny. Call it the feel-entertained for 104 minutes hit of the summer.

-- John Dicker


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