Neil Jordan’s new movie has a loose, jazzy quality that’s a nice variation on the tone of its model, Jean-Pierre Melville’s pre-New Wave new wavish “Bob le flambeur” from 1955. Like its predecessor, “The Good Thief” (the title is drawn from the Gospel story about the criminal crucified at Christ’s right hand, though the connection seems strained) is essentially a heist movie, but it exhibits a funky spirit that treats the gyrations of the plot with almost casual abandon and exudes a loopy, exotic flavor. It also features a charmingly raffish lead performance by Nick Nolan as the supposedly recovering crook-drug addict who masterminds the plot–with his growling delivery, he tosses off his dialogue in a cavalier fashion that nearly dares the viewer to catch the words. The writer-director’s almost whimsical approach and his star’s roguish accompaniment make for a film that certainly isn’t a smooth, slick piece of commercial machinery like “Ocean’s Eleven,” but nonetheless has a certain ragged charm all its own. If you can imagine “Casablanca” with the political posturing removed and viewed through the distortions of a fun-house mirror, you’ll have some idea of the picture’s offbeat character.
The central figure here is Bob (Nolte), an American expatriate and grizzled gambler, supposedly retired from a career in crime, who’s living on the south French coast. While shooting heroin in a club basement after an unprofitable card game, he encounters Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a 17- year old Bosnian waitress under the thumb of club owner Remi (Marc Lavoine), and offhandedly decides to become her protector; with equal nonchalance he saves the life of Roger (Tcheky Karyo), a cop (and long-time pursuer) waylaid by a illegal Algerian immigrant named Said (Quassani Embarek). Before long Bob has invited the destitute Anne into his apartment, where he’s revealed as an art lover with a Picasso hanging prominently on the wall, and she’s gotten romantically involved with his young associate Paolo (Said Taghmaoui). And after Bob loses the last of his funds on the horses, he decides to join old buddy Raoul (Gerard Darmon) in a heist at the nearby Riviera casino. The plan is to break into a vault where the owners keep the originals of the paintings they exhibit (in excellent copy) on the casino walls while distracting the police into focusing on the casino safe; the scheme involves a slew of colorful helpers, including a wiseguy Russian security agent (Emir Kusturica), a man-turned-woman bodybuilder (Sarah Bridges) and a underhanded art dealer (Ralph Fiennes). Another twist involves twin brothers (American writer-directors Mark and Mike Polish) who have a plot of their own afoot to rob the casino.
It would be difficult to outline what follows from all this in any coherent way, and to be perfectly honest, Jordan doesn’t seem terribly interested in clarifying it. His script hops from scene to scene and character to character without bothering to fill in all the connecting dots. Ordinarily this would be ruinous in a caper film, but here it doesn’t really matter. The point isn’t the plot, but the people and the style. And in this respect “The Good Thief” succeeds nicely. Nolte holds everything together with a cagey turn as a lovable con-man; he’s obviously having a great time, and his enjoyment is infectious. Nobody else matches him, but Kukhianidze has a sulky attractiveness and Taghmaoui a suitably nervous energy, and both Kusturica and Bridges prove unlikely scene-stealers. The picture has been given a suitably moody, garish look by cinematographer Chris Menges, and the eclectic soundtrack, combining an Elliot Goldenthal score and a selection of pop tunes, matches it well.
If anyone approaches “The Good Thief” as a conventional heist movie, he’s bound to be disappointed. But if you’re willing to accept it as what it is–a series of riffs on a theme, rather like a late-night improvisational set at a small jazz club–you might find it an easygoing charmer. It might not last long in your memory, but it’s tasty at the time.