There is a scene early on in the new heist thriller “The Italian Job” in which Mark Wahlberg cries for a good 30 seconds straight. His supposed cohort in grand theft just shot his fatherly mentor in the chest and ran off with their recent acquisition of about 30 million in gold bullion. Given these unfortunate circumstances, one can certainly forgive him for being none-too-happy. But Wahlberg doesn’t just get misty, or forlorn, or sentimental. The guy sobs, loudly, complete with heavy breathing, swollen cheeks, and a temper-tantrum moan.
It is among the most uncomfortable 30 seconds I’ve ever spent in a movie theater, and it is at the heart of everything that is wrong with this remake of the 1969 Michael Caine vehicle. Wouldn’t a wild, dangerous, it’s-good-to-be-bad career criminal pull himself together? Couldn’t he, please? The scene wants to give emotional depth to the character, but it is that very depth that undermines the romantic mood and anti-heroic arch that makes the heist genre thrive. The film wants to be “Hamlet” meets “Ocean’s 11” — a combination that just plain doesn’t work.
The whole story follows this thieves-seeking-vengeance narrative — but these bandits want to drive cool cars and get set for life in the process. Wahlberg plays Charlier Croker, the leader of the pack, who enlists the dead guys’ pissed-off daughter Stella (Charlize Theron) to help him and his criminal pals steal back the blood money from back-stabber Steve Frezelli (Edward Norton).
They find Steve hiding out in a lush L.A. mansion, and immediately set to work coming up with the most overly elaborate plan possible to take the dough. Most of the movie is lead-up to the actual heist — needless and often silly sub-plots that detract from rather than add to the central narrative. There is the forced inclusion of Russian gangsters into the mix, a weird encounter with an obscenely obese weapons supplier, and a drawn-out sequence in which Stella pretends to be a cable operator to videotape the inside of Steve’s house (an accomplishment that is ultimately useless to the actual robbery). The scene is meant to add sexual tension to the vengeance plot thread, but it instead plays out like a porn encounter without the climactic payoff.
When the heist is finally underway, the movie forgets its distracting revenge subtext and sticks to the glorified crime angle, at least for a little bit. The robbery is actually pretty fun to watch, albeit wildly implausible (but so was “Ocean’s 11,” so we’ll let that one slide). Although it does lift its twists and turns from the predictable “How to Build Tension and Suspense” cinema rulebook, after 90 minutes of narrative inertia, anyone expecting sweaty palms deserves to be disappointed. In the midst of loud crashes, fast cars, and cool gadgetry, “The Italian Job” is finally in its element.
But even at the peak of its game, the movie never exudes the badass cool to which it aspires. Even without the lame emotional undercurrent, these antiheroes don’t tap into our deep dark urges to break the law, our secret desires to be suave enough to pull off such a masterpiece of screw-the-system, real-work-is-for-suckers greed.
Mr. Wahlberg is a case in point. Any of the misguided souls who saw “The Truth About Charlie” realized he is no Cary Grant. Well, he’s no George Clooney, either. Wahlberg has turned the absence of charisma, charm, and personality into the new method acting for the 21st century. He manages to make a guy who steals millions of dollars seem as squeaky-clean as a boy scout. Moral ambiguity has never been so family-friendly.