There is a tense moment early in “The Italian Job”: will the story require canny Steve (Edward Norton) to believe that Stella (Charlize Theron) is really a cable repair tech on a house call? Isn’t Ms. Theron just a little too gorgeous for a utility professional? Credibility missteps such as this can throw a film irreparably off-track. But Steve is quickly suspicious, and this heist flick has just enough awareness and skill to be watchable between the fantastic chase scenes.
The script is cleanly structured but lacks complexity or even a single memorable line. Act one: heist, chase (boat-boat), double cross. Act two: the ripped-off reunite, recruit and plan to get back the loot. Act three: heist, chase (car-car-car-motorcycle-motorcycle-helicopter), and revenge. Planning and execution of the thefts are largely fudged and unconvincing. Since “Job” is based on a 1969 Michael Caine film by the same name, originality clearly wasn’t one of the script’s selling points. However, the movie works because director F. Gary Gray (“Set it Off”, “A Man Apart”) is savvy enough to finesse the weak and unnecessary material, such as a subplot about Stella’s dead father, and move quickly onto entertaining bits among the performers and the action.
“Job”’s centerpiece is an inventive chase where the good crooks, Stella, Charlie (Mark Wahlberg), and Handsome Bob (a suave Jason Statham) throttle Mini-Coopers all over the streets and tunnels of L.A. in pursuit of the 25 million in gold that bad crook Steve is transporting to the airport. Good crook Lyle (Seth Green) has hacked into the central traffic system, and he and the filmmakers have fun creating gridlock mayhem.
What distinguishes the action is creative staging, an only occasional use of close-ups, and an apparent lack of reality-draining CGI (computer generated imagery). Cars hitting each other have the impact of steel-on-steel rather than pixels-on-pixels. “The Matrix Reloaded” could have used a good, honest punch in the mouth now and then.
Gray and cinematographer Wally Pfister, aided by some first-rate stunt driving and coordination play the chase often in medium and wide shots. Unlike most movies these days, we actually see pursuit. Motorcycles and a helicopter chasing the getaway cars often share the frame, as opposed to the usual reliance on cutting between vehicles which merely gives the impression of chase. This added reality amps the tension – it’s an extremely well planned and executed sequence.
Mr. Statham, Mr. Green and Mos Def all have nice moments as part of the motley crew of bandits. The safe-cracking Ms. Theron is able to deliver technical jargon with a relative grace, if not believability, that has overmatched many actors in similar roles. Coasting are Donald Sutherland as Stella’s father and Edward Norton as the slimy Steve – both recycle old moves and forfeit any surprise.
More dangerous to the movie is Mark Wahlberg’s lack of range as the gang’s ringleader. His natural charisma is barely adequate to hold the film together, and he has begun to sport a Richard Gere-like leadenness of presence. Liberated from having to hide the unattractive narcissism innate to both actors, Mr. Gere’s breakthrough performance was as a near-sociopathic cop in “Internal Affairs”. “The Italian Job” might have been better recasting the shifty Mr. Norton as the hero and setting Mr. Wahlberg free as the villain.
Heist movies seem pretty quaint and analog in our era where high stakes crime is primarily electronic in nature. But until someone can make embezzlement cinematically interesting, we’re left with theft and this movie just gets away with it.