In a just world Neil Jordan would be considered one of our best filmmakers, but instead he’s been marginalized almost out existence. Yet for over 30 years Jordan has steadily turned out provocative, sometimes great, always interesting films. He has proved that, yes, it is possible to consistently personal films in an industry that prizes cookie-cutter thinking. But there’s a price to be paid. Few of Jordan’s 21st century works have gotten wide releases, while his ultra-styllish rethinking of the vampire movie, Byzantium (2013), was barely released at all. His first 21st century film, The Good Thief (2002), got a small release—with no push—through Fox Searchlight. It did play in Asheville for a week (maybe two) in the upstairs theater at the Fine Arts. The oddity of all this is that of all Jordan’s more recent work, The Good Thief—handled properly —stood perhaps the best chance of success. This re-imagining of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob La Flambeur (1956) had all the elements of a grittier Ocean’s Eleven (2001)—minus the big name cast, but with an honestly quirky vibe and an appealing Monte Carlo setting. It should have been a hit, yet it remains almost unknown.
The cast is headed by Nick Nolte as Bob Mantagnet (pronounced Montana), an aging, ex-thief, heroin-addict, down on his luck gambler, who takes up with a 17-year-old Bosnian hooker crack addict (Nutsa Kukhianidze). OK, that’s pretty gritty, but the tone is surprisingly light, in part because the characters are so appealing. Hell, even the local head of the police (a very good Tcheky Karyo) likes Bob and tries to help him—even while knowing that he’s not to be trusted, has the gift of gab, and very likely is up to something. That something is to rob a casino—or, more correctly, to rob the museum’s secret treasure of priceless paintings. To do this, Bob goes cold turkey, cleans himself up, collects a very strange team of accomplices, including an electronics wizard (Emir Kusturica), who’s grown tired of waiting for R.E.M. to show up and buy his guitar-driven light-show, and a transsexual body builder (Sarah Bridget), whose operation has left him with a fear of spiders.
To fund all this Bob sells his “treasured” Picasso to a shady underworld art dealer (an unbilled Ralph Fiennes), who promises to have Bob and the girl suffer “something definitely cubist” being done to their faces if he doesn’t get his money back when the painting turns out to be a fake. Now, you may think I’ve told you most of the plot, but I haven’t. There’s much more to The Good Thief and its delightful seemingly non-stop twists and turns. I liked the film when I first saw it—though I did and do have reservations about Jordan’s decision to end scenes on brief freeze-frames—but I’ve liked it even better on subsequent viewings. It really is an amazingly entertaining film.
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Good Thief Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.