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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Netflix Recommends... The Italian Job (2003)

* * *

Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Seth Green

This week Netflix apparently thinks I'm super into Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington, putting 3 films starring each (though, curiously, not that one movie that stars both) in my Top Picks. I went with Wahlberg and was rewarded with the 2003 version of The Italian Job, a slick heist movie loosely based on the 1969 Michael Caine movie of the same name. I had never seen this one before, but vaguely recalled the advertising for it which highlighted the chase involving three mini Coopers and a showdown between one of the minis and a helicopter. What I'd forgotten was that Wahlberg, at that phase in his career, was a much lighter onscreen presence, more twinkly-eyed than glowering - though in the twinkly-eye department he's got nothing on Donald Sutherland, who shows up just long enough to look like he's having a blast and provide the film with its inciting incident. The Italian Job may not be the sort of transcendent caper that raises it above its genre, but it's near-perfect as a genre movie and pretty damn entertaining.

The Italian Job begins with a prologue set in Venice, where John (Sutherland), a career safe-cracker recently out on parole has met up with Charlie (Wahlberg) to help him pull off a heist of $35 million worth of gold bullion. Charlie's team includes Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), a high performance driver, Lyle (Seth Green), a computer expert who insists on being called "The Napster" after the software he claims he invented and had stolen out from under him, Left Ear (Mos Def), an explosives expert, and Steve (Edward Norton), who acts as the Italian job's inside man. The team succeeds in making off with the gold after a great sequence involving cracking the safe under water and a high speed boat chase through Venice's canals, but as they approach the Austrian border Steve double crosses the rest of the team, taking the gold and leaving them for dead. In actuality only John has been killed and a year later, having tracked Steve and formulated a plan, Charlie approaches John's daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), also a safe cracker, and talks her into going to Los Angeles and getting revenge on Steve. Though she's reluctant at first, she decides to throw in her lot with Charlie, Rob, Left Ear and Lyle and goes with them to LA, where Steve is living in a compound with guards, dogs, and plenty of other security to keep his ill-gotten goods safe.

Charlie comes up with a plan to lure Steve out of his compound by getting Stella to agree to go on a date with him (a potential scenario that presents itself after Stella poses as a cable repair woman to gain access to the inside of the compound in order to map it out), but the plan goes awry first as a result of Steve's neighbors having a party which will make sneaking into the compound impossible, and then when Steve puts two and two together and realizes that Stella is John's daughter. Learning that Charlie, Rob, Lyle and Left Ear are all actually alive, and knowing that they're getting ready to close in, Steve starts pulling up stakes and gets ready to flee to Mexico with what remains of the gold. Now it's a matter of dueling elaborate plots: Steve's plot to keep Charlie from getting to the gold, and Charlie's plot to subvert Steve's plot and keep a few steps ahead of him. Unfortunately for Charlie, this means that he must also stay ahead of the Ukrainian mobster whose cousin is murdered by Steve, but who believes that Charlie was behind the deed.

Although it takes the story seriously in that it makes an effort to lay out the plan and make it seem logical (as logical, at least, as the plans ever are in heist movies), The Italian Job is a fairly light-hearted romp that has a lot of fun with its premise and with the genre elements. There's a palpable sense of joy to it as the film unfolds its action sequences, from the aforementioned canals chase to the climactic chase involving the mini Coopers, motorcycles, armored trucks, and a helicopter. Director F. Gary Gray pulls out all the stops, favoring old fashioned stunt work over CGI (for the most part) for results that don't just hold up but in fact still look great 11 years later, and keeping the proceedings moving at a fast pace. The flawlessness of the action sequences combined with the generally light-hearted tone of the film gives The Italian Job an effortless feeling in its best scenes, though the film does strain somewhat when it diverts from its efforts to be pure plot-driven entertainment, particularly when it tries to sell the idea of a Charlie-Stella romance. Wahlberg is solid as Charlie and Theron does exactly as much as could be expected with the "girl" part, but at no point during the film do they ever have anything resembling romantic chemistry. Charlie and Stella seem more like brother and sister than a potential couple, so the parts of the film devoted to that aspect definitely fall pretty flat.

The Italian Job is great fun, the kind of film that is mindlessly entertaining without being dumb and displays a lot of technical craft in addition to the charms of its cast (Wahlberg, as I said, is solid as Charlie, but Statham in the lead might have raised the film to a whole other level). Successful at the box office on its release in 2003, plans for a sequel to be titled "The Brazilian Job" started pretty much immediately but ultimately never came to fruition. It's surprising, given how well this one was received, how hot heist/caper movies were in the early/mid '00s, and what a no brainer it would seem to be - I mean, you can make two sequels to The Hangover, a good movie with a thin premise, but not one to The Italian Job? Get it together, Hollywood - but, on the other hand, sometimes it's a blessing when good movies are allowed to stand on their own rather than having their legacy tarnished by lesser follow ups. Good recommendation, Netflix.

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