Another week, another remake -- summer, that season of air-conditioned originality, must be upon us. Only unlike The In-Laws, which creaked into theaters last week, this latest update of a decades-old action-comedy has two things going for it: Its forebear is a veddy British caper film little-seen in the United States, which means it's unburdened by expectation, and this new film bears so little resemblance to its predecessor it scarcely deserves to be labeled redo at all. The 1969 version of The Italian Job stars Michael Caine as a devilishly mischievous heist man -- wisecracker as safecracker -- in a criminally neglected performance. Yet for all its wit and style, and a cast that features Noel Coward as a crooked prison warden and Benny Hill as a chubby-chasing computer genius, the film makes such little sense you'd be forgiven for thinking it was pieced together out of sequence. (If you can even find it: The Italian Job is out of print on VHS and unavailable on domestic DVD.) All that remains from the original are a few character names and a robbery-chase sequence featuring three MINI Coopers creeping-speeding through a cleverly devised and carefully designed traffic jam. Director F. Gary Gray's The Italian Job is less remake than resurrection, a case in which one movie's best gag is transplanted into a stronger, more agile body capable of sustaining it.
You would not be blamed for thinking you saw this film, or one just like it, last year; didn't Mark Wahlberg just do his international caper-comedy in The Truth About Charlie? Or was that Matt Damon globe-trotting around The Bourne Identity...Or was that the other way around? And didn't we already see Wahlberg, with George Clooney, steal hundreds of gold bars in Three Kings? (Or was that Damon, with Clooney, in Ocean's Eleven? No, wait...that was piles of cash, my bad.) And didn't Jason Statham already do that fast-talking, faster-driving getaway-man thing in The Transporter? They say the movie business is a dream factory; it's more like a déjà vu machine.
But that does not negate this movie's copious pleasures, chief among them its prudent decision to act like it's never supposed to be more than a good time, a thrilling test-drive in a car you love but can't afford to buy. Director Gray, whose previous film, A Man Apart, sat on a shelf so long it went bad and then got even worse, understood the best thing he could do was not treat the source material like it meant anything. It's the same trick Steven Soderbergh used in his Ocean's Eleven redo, in which he repaired damaged goods and asked only of his Vanity Fair cover cast that they have fun without turning the grin into a smirk. There's nothing worse than watching actors at the party when the audience hasn't been given an invitation; here, you're ushered in the front door and well taken care of.
Wahlberg, an actor of extraordinary contradiction (he looks soft but hits damned hard), is in the Caine role, if in name only: He plays Charlie Croker, a thief only beginning to emerge from the shadow of his mentor, John Bridger (Donald Sutherland, who broke into the gold vault before, long ago, in 1970's Kelly's Heroes). John, a man who speaks only in fortune-cookie aphorisms ("Trust everyone, just don't trust the devil inside them") and brags he can steal $35 million without using a gun, has sworn to daughter Stella (Charlize Theron) that the Venice heist cleverly executed at film's beginning will be his final break-in. We've seen enough of these last-job films to know he will be proved right in short account.
Charlie's crew consists of every archetype known to the Hollywood heist film: the deceitful partner (Edward Norton, whose mustache might as well be a sign upon his forehead reading "Bad Guy"), the sweetly obnoxious computer geek (Seth Green, who insists upon being called Napster for reasons the film makes abundantly and hysterically clear), the smoove brother handy with explosives (Mos Def, who most definitely deserves his own movie), the suave Brit who could maneuver a tank through a rat's maze (Statham, a Guy Ritchie regular) and the woman with something to prove and a few demons to exorcise (Theron, prettier than all of Venice). They all speak the shorthand slang of the con, refer to a grotesquely large man as Skinny Pete and employ a mechanic named Wrench. And if Soderbergh gave everyone a small moment in the spotlight, Gray lets his cast, especially a hilariously embittered Green, frolic in the mid-summer sun.
Everyone here walks the finest of lines: Play it too straight, and this becomes derivative gruel -- sodden homage at best, and only if you're generous. Smirk it up too much, and you've got Cannonball Run on your hands, well before the MINIs chase an armored car through Los Angeles traffic. The original was about the heist itself, planned by mystery men for inexplicable reasons; it was dying to cut to the chase, till everything else became superfluous filler. Here the chase, down Hollywood Boulevard and through the shiny new subways of Los Angeles, feels like a bonus, something earned rather than merely borrowed.
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