Peter Collinson’s 1969 heist flick with this title was a jaunty, none-too-serious account of an elaborate gold robbery in Turin that culminated in a chase involving three BMW Mini Coopers, and it featured a one of Michael Caine’s flashier early-career performances. When viewed today, the original “Italian Job” is still fun, but much of the enjoyment has a healthy dose of nostalgia to it, because to be perfectly honest it’s now rather dated (as well as terribly chauvinistic). Why it was decided to fashion a new version of it is the biggest mystery here, because even in a heavily altered refashioning like this one, which uses the first flick as little more than a jumping-off point, it comes across as rather tame and flabby by contemporary action-movie standards. It doesn’t help, either, that the comedy aspects have been diminished almost to nothing (Seth Green provides a few smiles, but not much more, though it’s really funny to think of him as a surrogate for Benny Hill), and–even more damaging–that Caine has been replaced by Mark Wahlberg, who’s virtually devoid of charisma or energy and leaves a gaping hole at the center of things.
The Italian part of this “Job” is dispensed with in the first act, when we observe a gang of generic crooks–cool Charlie (Wahlberg), his urbane mentor John (Donald Sutherland), smoldering Steve (Edward Norton), hotshot driver Rob (Jason Statham), explosives expert Left-Ear (Mos Def) and computer geek Lyle (Green)–pull off a carefully-planned theft of a safe-full of bullion in Venice that involves a high-speed chase through the canals and some underwater sleight-of-hand. Later, as the boys are transporting the loot across the Alps, Steve springs a double-cross that leaves John dead and the others longing for revenge. The narrative then jumps ahead to Los Angeles, where Steve’s efforts to sell off some of the bars attract Charlie’s attention and lead him to reassemble the old crowd–as well as John’s daughter Stella (Charlize Theron), who just happens to be a skilled safecracker–to steal the remaining gold from the traitor. There are reversals and complications, of course, but suffice it to say that everything winds up in a chase through the streets of L.A., which have been turned into a gridlocked mess by Lyle, who’s hacked into the city computer and re-programmed the traffic lights. Our “good” thieves are once again equipped with Mini Coopers–the new model this time, of course–while Steve pursues them by helicopter. And some Russian mobsters–apparently an obligatory element in contemporary crime dramas–are also involved in the twist finale.
There’s nothing terrible about all this–indeed, there are a few turns that are reasonably clever–but overall the script has a feebly formulaic feel. There comes a point, for example, when the oleaginous Steve discovers the plot to rob the gold from his house. The pad is heavily guarded, to be sure, but as it happens the gang has the duplicitous scumbag isolated at a restaurant, and a bit of roughing up might easily induce him to hand over the loot–he is not, after all, a courageous fellow. But with an absurdly delicate sensibility, Charlie lets the guy go with a single punch in the jaw, apparently so that he can contrive a very complicated scheme to transport the bullion to safety and thereby compel our boys to devise their wonderfully flamboyant plan to outmaneuver him. It’s nice to know that some crooks are so reluctant to resort to violence and prefer gamesmanship.
But it’s really the cast that sinks “The Italian Job.” Some of the supporting players fare well enough: Green is amusing as a nerd who claims to have invented Napster, Def gets mileage out of his “half-deaf” routine, and Statham has no difficulty reprising his “Transporter” role; even Sutherland’s avuncular smoothness has a soothing effect. But the main players are uniformly disappointing. Wahlberg is pretty much a cipher; his wan smile gives no sparkle to the romantic and supposedly comic moments, and he doesn’t have the heft for the he-man aspects of the part. (It’s becoming increasingly apparent that using him as a replacement for old stars in new versions of “classics” is a mistake. He was an even more wooden stand-in for the already stiff-as-a-board Charlton Heston in Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes,” and was singularly charmless in the old Cary Grant role in Jonathan Demme’s misguided refashioning of “Charade,” “The Truth About Charlie.” Somebody stop this man from remaking again!) It goes without saying that Theron is attractive, but she seems oddly stilted here, and her chemistry with Wahlberg is nil. The saddest case, however, is Norton, who walks through his villainous turn with what seems a perpetual scowl. His disinterest is understandable: he was little better in a similar part in “The Score,” and apparently was forced into doing this role to fulfill a studio commitment (perhaps explaining the scowl). The picture was directed by F. Gary Gray, who choreographs the chases well enough but whose touch in the more intimate moments isn’t nearly as sure (the same problem afflicted his other recent release, “A Man Apart”). Technically things look fine: Wally Pfister’s cinematography is especially nice in the Venetian and Alpine sequences at the beginning, but he gives an appropriately dark appearance to the L.A. material, too. John Powell’s music, unfortunately, is instantly forgettable.
So if you go to this retooled “Italian Job,” expect the Mini Coopers to outact the human stars–it’s the metal, rather than the flesh-and-blood, bodies that stand out here; and it’s certainly fun to watch the little tin-cans zoom down stairwells, over sidewalks and through tunnels, among various unlikely locales. The result is a pretty good car commercial, but not much of a movie.