Two Retro Brands Get a Makeover in the Pleasantly Middling Italian Job
At first blush, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to remake the 1969 film The Italian Job. It's a relatively obscure and very dated British caper comedy whose primary currency these days is that it was one of Mike Myers' inspirations for the Austin Powers series. But then again, it's most memorable for an over-the-top car-chase finale involving three Mini Coopers--the same cute lil' anti-SUVs that BMW just reintroduced to the U.S. market. Hmmm.
Like the original Job, the remake holds the Minis back until near the midpoint. In fact, other than the title, the appearance of the Mini is the first sign you're watching a remake of anything. But once Charlize Theron comes tear-assing across the screen in her red Mini looking like a 24-frames-per-second In Style spread, a new must-have accessory for the season is revealed. Toss in an updated over-the-top car-chase finale featuring three nuevo Minis, and the new film becomes about the car in a way that probably never would have occurred to the makers of the original. Not-so-news-flash: Hollywood is selling you more than tickets and popcorn.
Fortunately, credited screenwriters Donna and Wayne Powers and director F. Gary Gray (A Man Apart, Set It Off, Friday) manage to peddle a fairly entertaining movie along the way, just the sort of not-that-great but not-bad-at-all diversion that cineplexes eternally promise for summer but so often fail to deliver. In fact, the new The Italian Job and the new Mini ultimately have a lot in common: Two '60s-vintage retro brands get a revisit and major retool emphasizing economy, style, and speed.
Speaking of which, Gray and Co. save a lot of time and sure-to-be halfhearted character development by casting actors who are all too comfortable in their typical roles. Mark Wahlberg takes up Charlie, a do-over of the sort of gentleman tough/smart guy the actor played (not that well) in Planet of the Apes and The Truth About Charlie. Avuncular, twinkly Donald Sutherland is an avuncular, twinkly safecracker out for One Last Job, player/coach to Charlie's budding mastermind and distant father to Theron's character. Charlie's crew includes Seth Green doing his geeky comic-relief thing, Jason Statham doing his cocky Cockney thug thing, and Mos Def doing his literate B-boy thing. And then there's wild card Edward Norton.
It gives nothing away to say that at the culmination of the quite crafty and adrenalizing opening heist/speedboat chase through the canals of Venice, Norton's character betrays the crew and steals the gold they just stole--any moviegoer over the age of 10 who clocks his asshole manner, shifty eyes, and creepy moustache will get there before the script does. Not much else surprising happens for the rest of the film either as Wahlberg and his crew reassemble in Los Angeles and draft the law-abiding Theron, a legitimate safecracker/vault consultant, to steal back the gold and exact revenge. (Well, there is a gi-normous Polynesian gangster, played by a guy named Gotti--he's pretty surprising.) You know it's all heading straight for another big, complex heist and a big comeuppance, but the film touches all the bases most ricky-tick, with no small amount of flair, so you never look at your watch while waiting for it all to come to pass. Along the way, Gray deftly and briskly serves up a few acres of lovely Euro scenery, a handful of cool tricks of the high-end thieving trade, a couple of nifty turns of plot, some prime Actor's Studio-style sleazing from the slumming Norton, and plenty of warm and surprisingly funny camaraderie courtesy Green, Statham, and Mos Def. (The bulk of the dialogue is so wooden that it's tempting to assume Green and Mos Def's best bits were improvised.) In fact, the hired hands threaten to steal the film right from under the top-billed triumvirate of Wahlberg, Theron, and Norton.
True, there are lapses in logic here and a few lapses into utter cliché there, but The Italian Job is also commendable for what you don't get as part of your summer-movie prize pack: a secondary cast full of cardboard stereotypes, gratuitous violence, and a gratuitous romance between the leads (oh it's there, but just barely). If it's not as self-consciously hip as Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven or as maturely cheeky as John McTiernan's The Thomas Crown Affair, two other recent '60s heist-film remodels, it edges them both in sheer physical drive. And who knows, maybe afterward you'll even want to go ahead and take a Mini for a test spin.