The Good Thief (review)

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Little Cat Feet

In our hyperkinetic entertainment environment, where fast and loud and obvious is never fast, loud, or obvious enough, Neil Jordan’s languorous The Good Thief is even more decadently delightful than it might otherwise be. Not that there’s anything necessarily inherently wrong with having your ears assaulted and your heart pounding while you hover on the edge of your seat… but too much of it can be exhausting.

Thief, though, could hardly be called a change of pace that actual relaxes. It may be the mellowest crime caper to hit the screens in years — it creeps along more than it cavorts — stretching like a sleek black cat in the sun, but it pounces with all the stealth and surprise of that cat, too.

Jordan (The End of the Affair, The Butcher Boy) — working from the 1955 French flick Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler) — is so quietly, slyly sneaky that to say too much is to ruin the experience, the satisfaction of which is as dependent on the twists as it is on the slow immersion into the film’s atmosphere. But some little can be revealed. American Bob Montagnet is a drug addict, a gambler, the good thief of the title, his goodness measured not only by his former criminal success but also by the unlikely maintaining of his humanity on the seedy side of Nice, which he’s haunted for years. And a haunting it surely is, for Bob is sunken, physically and psychically, a seemingly hollow shell of a man with little but his next fix of heroin to look forward to. It’s a bittersweet thing to watch a once hale and rugged tough guy like Nick Nolte (Simpatico, The Thin Red Line) so thoroughly inhabit Bob, who’s shrunken and beat up in every way a man can be beat up. Nolte’s working — good for him — and clearly bringing his own real experiences of late to bear. But he still looks like those pathetic mugshots we’ve all borne sad witness to.

Slouching in this rain-soaked, neon-illuminated corner of Nice are too many people like Bob: tired, lonely, propping one another up in unhealthy relationships that are symbiotic rather than parasitic only in that all parties are finding their insecurities served. There’s Paulo, young crony of Bob; Said Taghmaoui (Three Kings) takes him from naively romantic to bitterly enraged without losing our sympathy. There’s the cop, Roger, who keeps a dogged eye on Bob even though he’s been straight — as a thief if not as an addict — for years; Tchéky Karyo (The Core, The Patriot), finally working his way into English-language roles that suit his craggy pragmatism, plays Roger like he’s forever wearing an old raincoat, soggy and heavy but a necessary protection from the elements. There’s Anne, a 17-year-old Russian who mistakes Bob’s interest in her as something other than a simple desire to save her from a life on the streets and on dope; Jordan has made an astounding find in young Nutsa Kukhianidze, whose streetwise shrewdness makes you realize that someone like Leelee Sobieski has been faking it all along.

Bob gets back into the thieving game; that much is probably safe to say, and that his new job involves a casino. Put a sharp suit on Bob, and he slips right into the smooth, suave glitz of nearby Monte Carlo. A cool, unexpected slipperiness is what The Good Thief is all about. This is a slow drawl of a film, all smoky jazz, like a growly Leonard Cohen tune — Cohen actually oozes from the soundtrack at several points. It hardly even matters that half the dialogue is either mumbled or garbled by the myriad accents onscreen — everything we need to know is in the characters’ faces: the world-weariness, the exhaustion with trying to figure out what’s real and what’s fake in a place where everyone’s got some kind of scam going.

Jordan and his cast: they’re scammers, too. Just when you feel as if you’ve been seduced by the hazy, dozy ambience they’ve created — like you should be slouching down in a leather club chair, sipping a 20-year-old scotch, and smoking a lazy cigarette — they spring. No, it’s not an edge-of-your-seat, all-senses-under-attack encounter, but it’s thrilling in its own deliciously devious way.

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