“The Good Thief” tries hard to be a sophisticated heist flick. It’s got all the ingredients: a slick, heroin-addicted crook (Nick Nolte) who’s down on his luck; a sharp-tongued prostitute with a heart of gold (newcomer Nutsa Kukhanidze); a hot locale (Monte Carlo). It even has a sexy poster. Director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”) certainly recalls other heist flicks of the recent past, but “The Good Thief” has none of the charm or coolness of something like “Ocean’s Eleven.” What it does have is phoniness. And plenty of it.
A shameless remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s New-Wave 1955 film “Bob Le Flambeur,” “The Good Thief” adds nothing to the original. In the film, Nick Nolte plays Bob Matagnet, a retired junkie gambler, or as he calls himself, “a big loser, that’s all.” Nolte slumps through the film, squinting through the bloodshot slits that are his eyes. He tries to be the brooding-but-angelic tough guy, and we’re supposed to feel pathos when he undergoes torturous heroin withdrawal. But as he writhes and groans, handcuffed to his own bed, all that his overacting induces is eye rolls. Of course, Nolte deserves some credit for working so hard, even if all he works up is a sweat. It’s hard to tell, however, whether his perspiration is due to his focused concentration or whether it results from wearing a heavy, black leather jacket in the middle of balmy Monte Carlo.
Nevertheless, Bob has a “reputation” as a gambler and a crook, and he is enticed into a double heist plot that will hopefully take him out of his losing streak. With his cronies in tow, Bob plans two robberies, one fake and one real, one covering for the other. Planned for the eve of the Grand Prix, the plot is to lift priceless paintings from a fancy casino. While Nolte plans to act as a decoy playing high stakes black jack on the big night, his fellow crooks will swipe the casino’s priceless collection of Picassos, Manets, and Gaugins. How can a bunch of crooks swipe a bunch of paintings right off the walls? There’s no need: they’re all fakes. The authentic paintings hide in a secret vault, which the crooks plan to crack.
The set-up in place, the crooks prepare for the big night. What is meant to be a suspenseful build-up to the eventual brilliant theft is actually a painful execution of poor acting coupled with trite and forced dialogue. The actors try desperately to deliver their lines with wit and savvy, but they fall short with lines like, “Girls are unreliable. Now horses, there’s an investment.” The constant ricochet of one-liners shot back and forth between the characters verges on the edge of ridiculous. On the big night, as the crooks prepare for their mission, one smears goop through his hair, stating, “You need gel when things get complicated.” It is difficult to critique Nolte’s dialogue because most of his gruff, scraggly intonation is barely comprehensible. Initially, I wished for subtitles to translate his mumbling, but then the lines probably weren’t worth hearing.
The film’s only redeeming factor is its beautifully filmed setting. Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (“The Pledge,” “The Mission”) portrays the nighttime Riviera as a visual feast, beautifully contrasting the azure sea against the cobalt sky and capturing the electric lights of Monte Carlo’s smoky nightclub scene. Certain individual shots are stunning, including one from a scene where two arguing characters are silhouetted under a bridge. The soundtrack passes too, with a decent mix of Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg and Euro-Arab pop.
But these nice touches do not save the film. “The Good Thief” is choppy and disjointed, and since none of the characters are fully fleshed out, the film gives the impression that important footage was left on the cutting room floor.
In a line of other successful heist films, “The Good Thief” falls short. Sure, there is plenty of smoke, fancy camera work, and glib dialogue, but ultimately, the film is forgettable. “The Good Thief” is just like the beautiful paintings that adorn the casino’s walls — a big, fat fake.