I was surprised by The Good Thief, though not because this latest offering from director Neil Jordan was good — I expected it to be at the very least interesting and worthwhile. The surprise lay in the film’s remarkable lightness of tone.
After all, the story of an aging, down-on-his-luck, heroin-addicted thief-turned-unsuccessful-gambler (Nick Nolte) and a 17-year-old crack-addicted, Bosnian-refugee hooker (Nutsa Kukhianidze) doesn’t sound like a load of laughs. And I’m not saying that this is exactly that. The Good Thief is, however, far more playful, quirky and light on its feet than those lower-depth elements — and the film’s neon noir visuals — would suggest.
The key to the whole thing is its quirkiness, and the fact that Jordan doesn’t allow his characters’ problems to completely dictate who they are. Nolte’s Bob Montagnet (pronounced Montana) is indeed a junkie, but that’s not actually Bob’s defining characteristic. He’s pictured more as a likable scoundrel with a good heart and not very good luck, and a facility for improbable stories that he can almost make sound plausible. And that’s as it should be, because The Good Thief isn’t about Bob the drug addict, it’s about Bob the gambler. In fact, Bob the Gambler is the title of the 1955 French film on which Jordan’s movie is based (though the director’s script often plays fast and loose with on the original, and definitely elaborates on it).
Stripped of its darker aspects, The Good Thief is at heart a more realistic, noir-tinged variant on the Ocean’s 11-style caper film than anything else (at least as concerns its characters). There’s a good chance, in fact, that the convoluted plotting of Ocean’s 11 inspired some of Jordan’s embellishments on his French model. And in its own way, The Good Thief is as enjoyable and is somewhat richer than Soderbergh’s Hollywood all-star product of 2001; the pleasant movie-star glitz of Ocean’s 11 gives way to a more believable quirkiness.
When Bob decides to help mastermind a plan to rob a casino — or more correctly, to appear to rob a casino while actually robbing the establishment’s stored art collection in another building — he doesn’t go looking for a cadre of strange characters to help out a la George Clooney (the strange characters are either already there, or they come to him). Vladimir (Emir Kusturica), the man who makes the entire scheme possible because he designed the security guarding the paintings, isn’t by nature a thief. He’s a Jimi Hendrix-loving inventor who is growing tired of waiting for R.E.M. to show up and buy his guitar-light-show invention, so he opts to turn to a life of crime.
Bob’s gang includes a character who used to be called Philip and is now Philippa (played, according to the credits, by the unknown Sarah Bridges), a muscled, body-building transsexual. Philip’s changes are generally taken in stride. “Does Philip look any different to you?” Bob asks an associate, only to be told, “No, he just looks like Philip — with melons.” In a singular use of a playful cliche, it seems that the only change in Philip (apart from the, er, “melons”) is that the sex-change left him with a morbid fear of spiders — something that bizarrely figures into the plot.
Then there are the twins, Albert and Bertram (Mark and Michael Polish), who wander into the proceedings with a casino-heist plot of their own. And all of this is taking place under the bemused eye of Bob’s police-inspector friend and nemesis, Roger (a delightful performance by Tcheky Karyo), a man who would far rather not have to arrest Bob. The plot has more than its fair share of complications, including a subplot where Bob has an underworld art dealer (played by an unbilled Ralph Fiennes) advance money on the sale of his “treasured” Picasso (the legacy of one of Bob’s improbable stories) in order to finance the robbery, only to have things go wrong and find himself threatened with revenge (“What I’ll have him to do your face will definitely be cubist”).
Ultimately, The Good Thief is a good-natured, undeniably edgy picture that, in many ways, returns Jordan to the world of his earlier hits Mona Lisa and The Crying Game (the story-telling ending of The Good Thief deliberately recalls the conclusion of the latter), though purveying a much lighter tone. I’m unclear whether the peculiar effect of having many shots slightly freeze just before a cut was an intentional flourish on Jordan’s part, or a problem in the editing. Sloppiness isn’t a Jordan trait, but if this is intentional, I have no idea why he opted for it, since it adds nothing to the film.
The Good Thief isn’t Jordan at his best, but it’s very good indeed, and certainly more generally accessible than the admittedly brilliant The Butcher Boy or the flawed In Dreams. If you’re looking for something stylish, witty and off-beat, this is it.