One of the highest compliments you can pay a film is to say that you truly want to know what’s going to happen to the characters.
This was the case with me and “The Good Thief,” Neil Jordan’s noirish heist movie starring Nick Nolte as an aging, drug-addicted gambler. I was watching the film in an uncomfortable theater and had an appointment I realized I was going to be late for if I stayed for the entire film. But I couldn’t bear to leave early: I genuinely cared about Nolte’s character and hoped he’d find the redemption he was seeking, and I was also worried about his friend Paulo (Said Taghmaoui), a gentle, sweet fellow who had gotten into some serious trouble and was in great jeopardy.
So I stayed, and though the movie is not spectacular, it is effective enough to warrant watching it, and pays off well enough to justify the attention it requires.
Nolte plays Bob Montagnet (this is a remake of the 1955 French film “Bob le Flambeur”), an oft-arrested Monte Carlo gambler/junkie who is, in the time-honored tradition of these movies, dogged by a relentless cop, Roger (Tcheky Karyo). He insists he’s keeping his nose clean; Roger doesn’t believe him; they maintain a wary friendliness around each other, like a cat and mouse who have somehow grown up as pets in the same house.
In another time-honored tradition, Bob is persuaded to do One Last Job, a major heist of some priceless art housed in a casino. Following some more traditions, he assembles a motley crew of assistants, including a set of twins (a brilliant idea, for reasons I won’t spoil) and a transgendered ex-con. The aforementioned Paulo is involved, too, and has troubles of his own.
The screenplay (written by Jordan) has a lot of dialogue that has been forced into archness, as if he had people speaking normally at first and then went through with a computer program and replaced the regular words with jazzy slang. It fits the smokey, bluesy cinematography and settings, but seldom sounds natural.
But through it all, Bob and company manage to convey real characters. It is, in the end, little more than a double-crossing caper film — except that Bob’s goal is not to find riches, but to find redemption. A superficial addition in some films, but it seems to mean something here in Nolte’s captivating, vulnerable performance.
B (1 hr., 48 min.; )