Thursday, March 19, 2009


Crime pays only for the best of the bad guys in director Frank Oz’s “The Score,” (*** out of ****) an entertaining, straightforward, procedural heist melodrama in the tradition of Michael Cimino’s “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (1974) and John McTiernan’s “The Thomas Crown Affair” remake. Not surprisingly, a gifted, powerhouse casting of Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, and Angela Bassett make “The Score” both interesting and easy to watch. Oz depicts the crime of safe-cracking in fairly realistic, down-to-earth terms, in his version of the oft-told tale about the professional criminal that wants to quit the rackets and settle down. Nothing in “The Score” struck me as implausible. Anybody over age thirty who suffers from attention deficit disorder might find it difficult to endure both the quieter, contemplative moments and the deliberate, suspenseful pacing. Not surprisingly, too, Edward Norton excels as a lawbreaker modeled on Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Soze character in Bryan Singer’s first-rate epic “The Usual Suspects.”

All performances in “The Score” are above reproach, even Brando’s flaky Sidney Greenstreet stock character with his Truman Capote wardrobe. Scenarists Kario Salem of “The Fast and the Furious,” Lem Dobbs of “The Limey,” and Scott Marshall Smith of “Men of Honor” have crafted a derivative but solid nail-biter based on a story by Daniel E. Taylor. Never do they let these thieves off the hook, and they confound their every move in an intricately woven yarn of disasters and double-crosses. “The Score” reminded me of those classy, high-stakes European crime thrillers from the 1950s, such as Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (1954), and “Topkapi” (1964), Giuliano Montaldo’s “Grand Slam” (1968), Henri Verneuil’s “Any Number Can Play (1963), and “The Burglars” (1972), Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi’s “They Came To Rob Las Vegas” (1968), Peter Colllinson’s “The Italian Job” (1968), and Michele Lupo’s “The Master Touch” (1974).

Sure, Hollywood has pulled off its share of these sagas, such as John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), Phil Karlson’s “Five against the House” (1955), and Lewis Milestone’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (1959), but they don’t compare with these classics. Ironically, “The Score” qualifies as the flip side of Oz’s earlier comedy “Bowfinger,” but the latter boasts a more upbeat ending. Where Steve Martin struggles to produce a movie around Eddie Murphy’s nutty actor in “Bowfinger,” Robert De Niro must outsmart Edward Norton’s devious miscreant during a complex heist. The conflict in “The Score” boils down to an account about the survival of the fittest. The worse criticism is the writers have visited the well once too often for inspiration.

Robert De Niro of “Ronin” plays Nick Wells, a world-weary professional safecracker who owns a jazz club in Montreal when he isn’t pulling jobs out of the country for Max (Marlon Brando of “The Island of Dr. Moreau”), his longtime friend and fence. Nick has survived over the years because he rarely takes chances. Nick recites a speech that sounds like the speech he gave in Michael Mann’s superlative “Heat” about knowing when to walk away from a job. The opening scene brilliantly demonstrates Nick’s imperturbable under pressure in tight spots aplomb. As he is breaking into a safe at a mansion during a late-night party, two young lovers interrupt him. When they cuddle, Nick conceals himself behind a couch. When the girl prefers to smoke a joint before having sex, her boyfriend leaves the darkened room in disgust. Nick grabs the hapless girl from behind when she spots his safecracking tools. He threatens her if she doesn’t keep quiet, and then coolly finishes the heist. Once again, Hollywood warns us smoking pot can get you into deep trouble you never imagined. Something similar happened in the Peter Hyams’ horror movie “Relic.” A deadly creature stumbles onto its first victim, a helpless security guard, and devours him. During the off screen chomping, the camera zooms into a smoldering marijuana cigarette that the guard had been smoking. The message is obvious. If the guard had not been where he was sneaking a few puffs of pot, he would never have been gobbled. Anyway, Nick gets away without being discovered because he believes in discipline. As he later tells an accomplice, “Talent means nothing. Lasting takes discipline.” Max delivers the bad news the day afterward, the person they had planned to sell the jewelry to has died. Nick is upset because he had to finance the jewel heist with $20-thousand of his own money. Max calms him down and tells him about a new job.

Nick wants to settle down with his flight attendant girlfriend, Diane (the lovely Angela Bassett of “Music from the Heart”), but she refuses to marry him if he continues his life of crime. Nick and Diane are seriously contemplating marriage when Max offers Nick a job that will pay $4-million. During their opening dialogue sequence, Nick and Diane discuss what sounds like a crime that Diane participated in with a partner who didn’t make it back from Istanbul. This plot point is left dangling; making it sound like Diane resembles the Pam Grier stewardess in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” who smuggled in money. As much as he loves Diane, Nick has second thoughts. He wants to wed Diane, but the prospect of a $4-million paycheck and the potential for paying off the mortgage on his club appeals strongly to him. When Nick reveals his illicit plan to Diane, she walks out in a huff.

Meanwhile, things grow complicated because Max tells Nick that the job is in Montreal.
One of Nick’s standard rules is never to pull a job in his backyard, an idea Max instilled in him, but the payoff is so big that not even Max can resist. Later, Nick learns that Max is deep in debt to another criminal. Like Nick, Max wants to use the proceeds to clear himself. Getting Nick to agree to pull the job in Montreal isn’t as difficult as getting him to team up with Jack Teller (Edward Norton of “American X”), the guy who shopped the idea to Max in the first place. Jack bristles with ambition. He masquerades as a part-time janitor with cerebral palsy. All the guards and the head janitor treat Jack like a son, and he used their sympathy to case the Customs House. All classic crime movies have those scenes where the criminals learn everything that they need to know about who they are going to hit, such as routines, etc. This is what I mean by ‘case the joint.’

One of the chief problems with the script is the lack of a back story about how Jack learned about the object of his avarice. Jack wants to steal a 17th century French scepter smuggled into Canada in the leg of a piano, but Far Eastern insects have contaminated the piano. The authorities have decided to incinerate the piano so the bugs don’t spread their contagion. The Customs House officials discover the priceless scepter when Jack points it out as the legs blaze in the furnace. Jack aggravates Nick when he meets him in public doing his cerebral palsy act. Max and Nick argue about Jack. Nick sends his thuggish strong-arm man, Burt (Gary Farmer) to scare him off. Jack proves more resourceful than Nick imagine. Eventually, the two guys patch up their differences and decide to go forward with the heist. About the same time they learn that the Customs House officials are beefing up security. Nick turns to his hacker friend Stephen (Jamie Harrold) who lives in a dark basement at his mother’s house where he surrounds himself with computers. Clearly, the people who made “Live Free Or Die Hard” borrowed this idea with their Kevin Smith character. Anyway, Stephen comes through. “Give me a KayPro 64 and a dial tone and I can do anything,” he proclaims. They need Stephen to get them the specs for the super vault where the scepter is now stashed. More problems occur. Our anti-heroic heroes bribe a hacker inside the security firm. Nothing goes according to plan in “The Score,” and these chaotic screw-ups heighten the drama and its outcome.

Despite the obvious loopholes in the script, director Frank Oz gets away with this crime caper for the most part. He generates considerable tension during the logistical planning scenes when Nick searches for a safe entrance into the Customs House from the Montreal sewer system. Oz knows how to induce anxiety, especially when Nick and Jack have to bribe the computer hackers. Dressed from head to toe in commando garb, De Niro’s Nick Wells looks like the saboteur plumber from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” when he breaks into the Customs House. Moviegoers who like to hear the explosions of uncooked popcorn kernels hitting the floor of a cinema during the taut crime sequence will relish this atmospheric white-knuckler. If you thrive on gratuitous nudity, sex, and violence set to the tune deafening rap music on a soundtrack, “The Score” is not for you. Jazz lovers will appreciate the cameos Mose Allison and Cassandra Wilson make in Nick’s nightclub.

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