Sunday, December 18, 2016


(July 2001, U.S.)

Although not all of them are perfect by any means, I have a special fondness for heist films. It's one of the few cinematic situations where the criminals are genuinely the good guys that you want to root for. Typically, such criminals are not violent or dangerous to the lives of others. In many situations, they're stealing from those that can afford the loss, such as a corporate bank, museum, casino, etc. You want them to get away with it, and you can't help but be on the edge of your seat when things get tense during the actual heist process.

This particular heist film is directed by Frank Oz; yes, the Frank Oz who created many of our beloved muppets, voiced Yoda and directed many great comedies like DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988), WHAT ABOUT BOB? (1991) and IN & OUT (1997). A serious heist film is unlikely something you'd expect from someone who's made us laugh so much (not too unlike Woody Allen's 2005 film MATCH POINT). I suppose we can leave it up to a filmmaker trying something new for the first time to offer us something just a little different from the average heist film, and just as entertaining.

The ultimate payoff this time is an ancient French sceptre believed to be a valuable national treasure and being held under guard in the ultra-secure basement of the Montréal Customs House after being illegally smuggled into Canada inside the wooden leg of a piano. Our thief, or let's be completely honest, our hero in this film is Nick Wells (played by Robert DeNiro) who is a master safe cracker and owner of a popular jazz club and restaurant. Like so many other tales before it, his agreement to take place in the theft of this sceptre will be his last score before finally retiring to his simple life as a club owner and lover to his girlfriend Diane (played by Angela Bassett). The entire operation is being financed by Nick's fence Max (played by Marlon Brando in his final screen role - I'll get to him a little later). And of course, as always, there's a man on the inside who's key to whole success of the operation. Jack Teller (played by Edward Norton), is an ambitious thief who's employed by the Customs House by those who believe him to be a mentally disabled janitor named Brian. As Brian, Jack is almost completely dismissed as an insignificant presence inside the facility who's often permitted to wander, enter and exit as he pleases. This gives him the opportunity to have full layout of the land and its vital security issues that the team will have to crack in order to get their ultimate prize.

Now despite bringing some levels of originality into this film, Frank Oz is surely not exempt from adhering to the traditional textbook rules of the common heist film. Rule one: the thief almost always needs to penetrate his ultimate destination from underground, as Nick is forced to do from the sewer tunnel below the basement where the sceptre is kept. Rule two: there's at least one moment where it looks as though the thief will be caught in the act, as Nick is nearly forced to abort while hanging upside down from a steel beam and is surely expecting to be caught by security guards. Rule three: someone in the end is going to try and double cross the other person out of the score's final payoff, as Jack attempts to do to Nick just before they're about to make their escape with the sceptre in hand. Jack, being a ruthless thief who has seemingly considered everything about this score right down to the last detail, doesn't appear to have the common intelligence or foresight to actually check the carrying case that he's taken off of Nick to make sure the actual sceptre is in it until it's too late and he's on the run from the police. And so, rule four: the ol' "switcheroo"!

Marlon Brando, one of cinema's greatest actors, actually does quite well for this role, bringing an eccentric wit to his character of a wealthy (and seemingly gay) fence and financial front for the score...and this is coming from a man (me!) who swore that Brando should never get in front of the motion picture camera again after his disgusting debacle in the 1996 remake of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU!). DeNiro is sharp and solid, as always, and Norton continues to prove that he's versatile as a sympathetic simpleton, as well as a man you likely don't want to cross or piss off! In a world of so many heist films to choose from, THE SCORE manages to stand on its own during a traditional summer blockbuster season, even coming from a funny man like Frank Oz.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Nick Wells: "How can I be sure you're okay?"
Diane: "I suppose I could fuck you."
Nick: "That would work."

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