Good Thief, The

dir: Neil Jordan
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Doing a remake of a classic by one of the renowned masters of the cinematic art form takes a lot of balls, or ovaries, as the case may be. Jean Pierre Melville is that master, and Bob le Flambeur is that classic. Of course from a commercial point of view few potential audience members are going to care, but the wizened ye olde film reviewers will stroke their beards and tut tut loudly if it doesn’t sufficiently honour or even surpass the original (which let’s face it never happens). I’m not one of those beard stroking pipe smoking crones, but it makes me sit up and take notice when someone has the gall to embark on this type of endeavour.

Audiences don’t care on the most part. Although if, as often gets bandied about like the Sword of Damocles, they decide to do an official remake of Casablanca starring some guy from a boy band as Rick and co-starring someone whose last name is Hilton as Elsa, you’re going to have ugly, angry mob riots on your hands. Theatres being burnt to the ground. Celebrities being hunted in the streets. Colourful language.

Admittedly, Bob Le Flambeur isn’t as well known as Casablanca, so when Neil Jordan remade it as The Good Thief a couple of years ago, there was barely a ripple on the collective cinematic consciousness. Of course a bigger deal was made of Nick Nolte’s offscreen troubles with the law and alcohol / drug use. Which is as decent an instance of where life truly does imitate art sometimes. Oh, except perhaps when Robert Downey Jnr played a drug-addicted reprobate in Less than Zero.

Regardless, this film was released with little fanfare, despite the fact that Neil Jordan is one of the most consistently competent directors working today. The man who gave new meaning to the phrase ‘sausage surprise!’ in The Crying Game has had one or two stinkers along the way, but more often than not delivers the goods. He’s a director I hold in high esteem.

This film here is a fairly loose remake, in that the essential dynamic between Bob, Paolo and Anne is the same as the Melville original, and it concerns a major crime of some sort, enough of the details and the tone are sufficiently different for it not to matter. It must, after all, be judged upon its own merits, and not merely in comparison with its source.

The script and dialogue are sufficiently different as well. Practically every phrase that leaves Bob’s mouth is well-crafted smart ass rhetoric or pithy witticism, which I found hellishly entertaining. Nolte devours the role and much of the scenery, obviously loving the chance to play the role. I have to admit to having some difficultly understanding what the hell he said at several points due to the incredibly growly, raspy, subterranean voice he uses. Perfect for the role as a hard living veteran of the criminal world, but damn hard on those of us that went to too many loud gigs in our youth.

Bob is charming, cunning, hedonistic and self-destructive. He has somehow managed to survive as a master thief in Paris despite being both a heroin addict and a chronic gambler. The latter has left him broke, and with only an apartment to his name. The cliché “one last job” comes along, involving a plan for the theft of masterpiece art works from a casino on the Riveira.

Complications arise, as they always do, in the form of the many people around him that all want a piece of something. There’s Paolo (Said Taghmaoui), his young protégé, who idolises Bob more than is healthy. There’s Anne (Nutsa Kukhianadze), a beautiful Russian gamine whom he ‘saves’ from a life of prostitution. There’s his cop nemesis Roger (Tcheky Karyo) who despite having an obvious affection for his adversary is none the less intent on putting him away again. And there’s about another, I don’t know, dozen people who all want something as well. It’s hard to keep track at times, but I do as well remember a fleeting cameo by Ralph Fiennes as an art dealer operating in an area unlikely to be very legal, who is compelling in the unfortunately very little screen time given to him.

In the manner that only Oedipal interactions can be this creepy, Anne wants to ‘thank’ Bob for saving her from a pimp the only way she knows how, but Bob’s intentions seem to be solely paternal. He virtually hands her to his protégé, and she sits around like a plot device just waiting to fuck things up in between chasing the dragon (using heroin) and humouring Paolo’s adolescent machismo. She’s excellent in the role, depicting a world-weariness that you could only get from a teenage character for whom sex is the only form of currency they can create with which to pay their way.

In between his hero worship Paolo finds time to also find new ways to fuck up Bob’s plans. He’s played reasonably well by Said Taghmaoui, who I might remember from such films as La Heine, and Three Kings. It’s not a star role, and he almost comes off as the incompetent Robin to Bob’s Batman.

I get the feeling I’m going to regret that analogy, but no matter. Paolo is too emotional and passionate for this line of work, whereas Bob is always supercool, knowing exactly how to plan something to the nth degree, and how to play off those that seek to use him. He also knows when to cut and run, which no-one else in the film seems to understand.

If the set-up strikes anyone as being overly familiar, who haven’t seen the original either, well it may just be because they’re a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Sure, everyone knows his stuff because of Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia and Boogie Nights, but there’s this select bunch of people that made an effort to see his first feature, Hard Eight. Of course the ending is completely different, but the basic character set up is identical. A little flash of recognition is easily explainable, now. Aren’t you relieved?

Just as an aside, recalling Said’s previous work, I was just remembering his great scene in Three Kings where he’s asking a soon to be tortured character “What is wrong with the King of Pop?” referring to of course Michael Jackson. I laugh out loud just thinking about it. That is the kind of person I am.

Bob’s happy to be an old mentor to Paolo, despite the fact that Paolo is obviously a fuck-up of the highest order that ultimately can’t be relied upon for anything, because of his lack of self-control and perhaps the fact that he’s something of a dim bulb. He falls idiotically in love with a girl that clearly considers him a poor substitute for the real deal in the form of Bob, but he somehow believes that he can turn that around. In a night time Parisian world so mercenary and cynical his romanticism is amusing. Sweet but laughable.

Paris as the setting is not portrayed as either a romantic, charming place or as the City of Light. Of the recent films using it as a setting that I can think of (Bourne Identity, Truth About Charlie, One Night in Paris Hilton), Jordan uses it best by using it as the setting, nothing more. In doing so he honours the original film enough. It’s just a city, with its scant virtues and rough realities of life like all other cities.

When we finally get to the situation planned for towards the film’s climax, I must admit I was stunned. The ending is not one that I could have predicted. Of all the heist films I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them, this has one of the least sensible endings, which completely subverts the entire film. I don’t think it was necessarily a good or a bad thing that the ending was so deliberately diverted from where we thought it was going to go. What we have to remember is that Bob is so good at being a player that perhaps he ended up playing us as well.

So whilst I have reservations about the ending, the film to me is worthy on a stack of levels. Bob’s every moment on-screen is well used, and gives us another window into the murky world of a career criminal for whom crime has always paid, just not enough to keep him comfortable or out of jail. Someone who places an almost existential importance upon his own ‘luck’ doesn’t really operate with the same rules that the rest of us do. In this world there isn’t really a consistent conception of morality, immorality or amorality. As perverse an overselling as the title is, Bob really is a ‘good’ thief, both in terms of being great at his chosen profession and also at being inarguably a ‘decent’ fellow, despite his numerous flaws. He helps out Anne for no other reason apart from the fact that he doesn’t want to see another young girl from the sticks used up and spat out. His personal ethics don’t contradict his sense of self-preservation, and he happily helps people out when he can, without thought of long term significance.

But then the ending, ah, the ending. It renders the ideas I’ve just written about somewhat murkier.

Of course the film has faults, but then again no-one pretended this was a masterpiece. There are scenes towards the start where Bob decides to detox himself, and does so by being chained to the bed for a day or so and then being right as rain. Now I have never been a heroin addict, and don’t intend to ever be one, but even I know that kicking heroin is a little bit more complicated than that.

Bob as played is wittier than George Bernard Shaw and more cunning than a sack full of foxes, and it gets a bit wearisome sometimes. Tcheky Karyo as the almost sympathetic cop is given little to do apart from react to Bob’s bullshit with confusion and surprise. They have a running gag where in the carrying out of his duties, the cop has to listen to Bob continually fabricate his life history. No-one in his right mind is going to believe it, but he still reacts with head-shaking disbelief whenever he hears a bunch of lies.

The way the ending comes about will surprise most audience members who know nothing about the film going in, and not necessarily in a ‘good’ way. All the same I enjoyed the time I spent with Bob and his strangely existential tale, where even the best plans are beholden to fortune. As to whether I can recommend it to anyone except film nerds, well, maybe those of you with a Nick Nolte fetish might like it too. It’s without doubt one of his best performances in years. It is also wonderfully moody flick with which Neil Jordan can redeem himself to international audiences, fickle bitches that they are.

7 times that Russian girl has probably led a life already little different from that of her character out of 10

"If I don't get my money back by Monday, what I do to both your faces will definitely be Cubist!" - The Good Thief