Archive for Thursday, July 12, 2001

The Mag: Den of thieves

July 12, 2001


Den of thieves

Big-name cast can't resuscitate routine thriller "The Score"

By Dan Lybarger

With the talent involved, "The Score" promises to be a worthy caper flick. Instead, it tediously swipes ideas from better films and robs viewers of two hours and the cost of a ticket.

If the theft had been executed with a little more flair and a little less banality, it wouldn't feel so tired seeing Robert De Niro play Nick Wells, a career criminal who bears an almost Xerox-like resemblance to the bank robber he portrayed in Michael Mann's "Heat." (The newer film is overdrawn in its debt to Mann's detail-oriented "Thief" and the classic "Rififi.") Nick's quiet and methodical techniques for relieving safes of their contents have earned him a posh-but-tasteful apartment and ownership of a classy Montreal jazz club. Even though his last buyer wasn't able to deliver, Nick is eager to get out of the racket and spend more time with his flight attendant girlfriend (a shamefully underutilized Angela Bassett).

As can be deduced with little effort, Nick's days of larceny aren't over just yet. His fence, Max Baron (Marlon Brando), has a tip on a new heist from a young, and often dangerously enthusiastic, con man named Jack Teller (Edward Norton). With his job at the Montreal Custom House, Jack has discovered that a rare gold scepter is lying in a basement safe. He irritates Max and Nick into going in with him on the burglary. The subdued Nick eventually joins along though he has little patience with Jack's frequently volatile behavior. Of course, a potentially tricky operation becomes increasingly difficult as contingencies (like a recently added security camera) and the two men's conflicting temperaments get in the way.

Even with some of the best thespians in the business, "The Score" feels rote and vapid. In many ways, the leads are part of the problem. Because De Niro has played seemingly subdued men on the verge of exploding, his presence in "The Score" often serves as a reminder of his work in more inspired movies.

Screenwriters Lem Dobbs, Kario Salem and Scott Marshall Smith don't give him or the rest of the cast much room to excel. While they do come up with some trade jargon that sounds about right, we never get inside these characters' heads long enough to care what makes them tick. As a result, Norton settles for recycling his physical tics from "Primal Fear." Watching him pretend to be a hunchbacked, mentally handicapped janitor is unconvincing because his now-familiar face is a warning he might not be what he appears.

Curiously, only the 77-year-old Brando displays any inspiration. While he does look portly and haggard, there's a wit and sincerity in his brief performance that's sorely lacking in the rest of the film.

Director Frank Oz, who normally specializes in light comedies like "Bowfinger" and "Little Shop of Horrors," creates a moody atmosphere with his Quebec location. Perhaps the city was chosen for reasons other than cheaper shooting expenses, although the lead actors' American East Coast accents indicate otherwise. Nonetheless, his slow pacing only seems to exaggerate the cliches. If he and the screenwriters had tried even a slightly unconventional narrative instead of offering up hackneyed moments on cue, the movie would have been more involving. "Reservoir Dogs," for example, never even shows the climactic heist gone bad, and "Rififi" places the big robbery in the middle of the film rather than the end. The blandness of "The Score" is especially appalling because Dobbs wrote the far more stylish and entertaining "The Limey," which also toyed with chronology.

To be fair, few involved with this project embarrass themselves, but there's no excuse for a thriller with no thrills.

-- The Mag can be reached at 832-7178.

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