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GOOD THIEF, THE(director/writer: Neil Jordan; screenwriters: Auguste Le Breton/Jean-Pierre Melville; cinematographer: Chris Menges; editor: Tony Lawson; music: Elliot Goldenthal; cast: Nick Nolte (Bob Montagnet), Tcheky Karyo (Roger), Said Taghmaoi (Paulo), Michael Polish (Bertram), Emir Kusturica (Vladimir), Nutsa Kukhianidze (Anne), Mark Polish (Albert), Gérard Darmon (Raoul), Marc Lavoine (Remi), Ralph Fiennes (Art Fence, Tony Angel), Sarah Bridges (Philippa), Julien Maurel (Junior Cop Philippe), Ouassini Embarek (Said); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Stephen Woolley/John Wells/Seaton Mclean; Alliance Atlantis/Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2002)
“The Irish filmmaker takes Melville’s Gallic masterpiece about a gallant Montmartre gambler and makes it into an ordinary American neo-noir film set in the French Riviera.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Good Thief is Neil Jordan’s (“The Crying Game“/”The Butcher Boy“/”Mona Lisa“) flashy remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish film noir Bob le Flambeur (1955). The Irish filmmaker takes Melville’s Gallic masterpiece about a gallant Montmartre gambler and makes it into an ordinary American neo-noir film set in the French Riviera. Why make a remake of a perfectly fine B&W film and then have nothing to add to it except for some techie special-effect improvements and beautiful color visuals capturing the smoky nightlife atmosphere! This project makes me scratch my head in bewilderment. Jordan tampers with the heist plot as he needlessly makes it more complicated by having a double instead of one heist. The impossible to crack safe in the Monte Carlo casino is to be used as a decoy for the real robbery of a valuable private art collection of Picassos and French Impressionists that is owned by Japanese investors and stored in a highly secure vault adjacent to the casino. That art heist on the night of the Grand Prix becomes the bigger aim of the gang. The suspicious police are tailing Bob Montagnet, as his gang intends to force all the police attention on the casino. The other drastic change is that the aging gentleman gambler and career thief and storyteller, Bob, who claims he has an American father and a French mother, is no longer just a gambler who has run into a bad streak of luck, but he’s a heroin junkie. It’s hard to convince that a junkie is elegant. Nick Nolte, who has a face that seems battered by abuse and time and who before filming was arrested for driving under the influence and admitted using heroin during the shooting of this film to get in the mood for the part, plays the good thief in a heavy-handed manner and gives no one else room to show their stuff (he was in just about every scene). He also slurs his words, which made it very hard to understand him. It was also hard to believe Bob was such a good guy that everyone loves him so much from the police chief, Roger (Tcheky Karyo), who would rather reform than arrest him for the heist he has been tipped off on, to the lowlife criminal element he hangs out with. Jordan just took the caper tale in another direction and missed the subtlety and likability of the character that made the original such a refreshing work. This version felt forced, though the worst thing about it was the sunny ending. I think Melville would turn over in his grave if he saw this ending. In the original, there are also the double-crosses but they are added to the sudden death of Bob, and somehow the film was done so well that it still remained light in mood and a love poem to the American thrillers of the ’30s and ’40s and to the seedy part of Paris Bob adored. Instead of being talkative, Bob as played by Roger Duchesne in the original was laconic in taking us on a tour of his haunts from dusk to dawn. Supposedly Sterling Hayden’s performance in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was one of the inspirations for Jean-Pierre Melville’s thriller and is also the inspiration for Neil Jordan’s remake.

This updated version is basically a routine heist film, like so many that flood the screen nowadays with those techie geeks in a ragtag gang getting the best of the Big Boys by outsmarting them and thereby gaining the cheers of an audience rooting for the underdog. Bob the Gambler was about elegance and style, and how an older screw up could be so wonderfully vain and hang with young screw ups and they are all within character because they have accepted their lot in life and are willing to live on the edge as outsiders hoping for their big money dreams to materialize. It was a daring subversive film and Melville exposed his anti-heroes for their shortcomings never letting them off the hook even though he loved them as characters, whose existentialism was a conviction and a way of life. In this version, the hipster characters are never exposed for their own trivial lifestyle and for how they are anti-social and self-absorbed creatures of the night. Instead it’s a nice safe film, as the underlying existentialism is sanitized and made safe through its injected common man aims to have the screw up Bob strike it rich through his renewed gambling luck (an American Dream come true, so to speak). It was just the wrong ending for the film, and made it seem such a waste to see Bob stripped of his spiritual essence to be taken for a so-called winner. It never convincingly showed that Bob was trying to straighten out his addiction problems and become a good citizen instead of a thief. It therefore was very hard to find sympathy with such a misbegotten character, while in the original Bob never lost his heart of gold as he played the part of a venerable gambler capable of larceny but always concerned about the well-being of his community.

The Good Thief takes its title from the thief crucified with Jesus Christ, whom Jesus tells us will also ascend to heaven. An interesting concept that never was seriously taken past that point. Instead the film is filled with all sorts of snazzy camera shots of a seedy Nice and the glitzy French Riviera and with a jazz look reflecting the 1950s, and of weighty Leonard Cohen doom songs played in the background trying to do for the film what it did for McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). It just seemed that everyone in on the caper from the eccentric twin casino robbers (indie film directors Mark and Michael Polish) to the trans-sexual muscleman thief now called Philippa after a lifetime spent as Phil (who is a source of some lame jokes about castration), to an expanded role in this version for an Algerian drug dealer turned snitch (Ouassini Embarek) and a devious pimp (Marc Lavoine), all inundate the film with over-the-top characters who chop away at its soul. The teen-aged thin-bodied Russian émigré waitress/prostitute, Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), who Bob rescues from her pimp to then throw her aside to his hero-worshiping young thief partner Paolo (Taghmaoi), seemed to be more catchy an act than heartfelt. The two young screw ups mirror their older mentor Bob in showing how weak-kneed they are to the temptations of drugs, the nightlife, talking too much and battling with their love life and passions. All three anti-heroes were too distant for me to feel them. Another thief is Vladimir and he is played by Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica (“Underground“), as he’s the genius electronical whiz with the quirky personality who knows how to break into the art vault. While Bob’s closest confidante is his right-hand partner Raoul (Darmon); he’s the career criminal who proposes the casino heist when Bob loses his last franc at the racetrack.

There are some very watchable scenes when the frenetic camera takes a break and slows down and the dialogue at times becomes intelligible as the characters talk to each other and try to listen, even though everyone is saying something they don’t mean or mean it too much for it to be believable (everything in this film has a double meaning from the real art in the vaults to the fake art on the walls of the casino). Bob’s character as a con man is built upon him talking incessantly about thievery, numbers, probability theory, gambling, and art. To help explain where Bob is coming from, something is made out of his worship of Pablo Picasso. There’s one great line where Bob says “Name the best thief that ever lived…Pablo Picasso…cat stole from everybody.” That line stands out because most of the other dialogue is not worth repeating. Also, Bob tells everyone his one prized possession was a Picasso, which he claimed he won during a bet with the master in the bullring at Pamplona. “Pablo bet on the matador, I bet on the bull. The matador got twenty-six stitches, I got a painting…” Unfortunately, as Ralph Fiennes found out playing a cameo role as a sleazy British art fence, that painting was a forgery. This film is also fake when compared to Melville’s real film noir.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”