Glorious Wreck Nick Nolte Makes Off With The Good Thief

Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief , from his own screenplay, inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur (1955), has been compared favorably with such caper flicks as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Frank Oz’s The Score (2001). By contrast, The Good Thief has been compared unfavorably with such acknowledged caper classics as John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1954) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). But it’s a mistake, in the first place, to compare The Good Thief with any caper movie, because Mr. Jordan’s film is singularly unsuccessful in satisfying any of the demands of the genre. There are no thrills or chills, little suspense and only a very convoluted form of ingenuity. The Good Thief isn’t even particularly faithful to the film that supposedly “inspired” it.

Mind you, I have always argued that there is no such thing as a “remake,” no matter how slavishly the plot of the first version has been copied for the second. This is to say that, unlike in the theater, there are no genuine “revivals” in the cinema. Every piece of film is stamped with its own unique identity by the mercilessly relentless time machine. And after almost half a century, Melville’s more rigorous fatalism is virtually an eternity removed from Mr. Jordan’s comic whimsicality.

Melville’s Bob le Flambeur opens with a nocturnal hymn to the Montmarte milieu of Paris, a realm that begins in the heavens of the Cathedral of Le Sacré Coeur and descends to the hell of Pigalle. Melville’s Bob (Roger Duchesne) is first seen in the gray gloom of dawn as a busted gambler retreating to his flat after a fruitless night at the gambling table. But even as his luck runs out, he hasn’t abandoned his sartorial splendor and spiritual elegance. He will try for one last big score, but only in his own impeccable style.

Mr. Jordan’s Bob is played by his film’s co-auteur, Nick Nolte, whose perpetual self-destruction provided Oscar-night host Steve Martin with one of his biggest laughs, with a throwaway line about Mr. Nolte’s recent brush with the gendarmes over his alleged drunk driving. Indeed, The Good Thief is as much about the strikingly visible wreckage of Mr. Nolte’s real life as it is about anything else, and to his credit he plays his mirror image on the screen with great gallantry, panache, charm and humor. But though the Bob of Mr. Jordan’s film is thoroughly busted when we first encounter him on-screen, he is not confined, as Melville’s Bob is, to the noirish hours between dusk and dawn. Mr. Jordan has shifted the locale from Paris-Pigalle and nighttime Deauville to the sunnier and more sybaritic surroundings of Monte Carlo. Indeed, The Good Thief spends so much time in the daylight that it doesn’t really play like film noir at all, despite its few spasms of homicidal violence. In any event, Mr. Jordan and Mr. Nolte go through the motions of setting up Bob’s one last big score, but their hearts aren’t really in it.

Red alert! Readers who get homicidal about critics who give away plot twists, read no further until after you have seen this fascinating movie, which I strongly urge you to do as promptly as possible, because it may not be around much longer.

What is the plot twist, in both the Melville and the Jordan films? Simply this: In the midst of the caper, both Bobs are to divert attention from the actual robbery by pretending to be settling down for a night of serious gambling. In the Melville, Bob starts winning big as he has never won before in his life. He completely forgets about what he’s supposed to be doing as part of the robbery team in his exultation over seeing a life of bad luck turn with a vengeance. As a result, he escapes a double-cross that results in the thwarting of the planned robbery, and the death of his young protégé. Melville’s recurrent theme of male amity is the emotional payoff. Mr. Nolte’s Bob is more woman-oriented, and he ends up with the apparently redeemed nubile young Russian prostitute Anna (Nutsa Kukhianidze).

I have broken the critics’ code of secrecy when it comes to divulging trick plots because I wish to explain why the same plot gambit works in the Melville and doesn’t in the Jordan. It has to do with one Bob being genuinely surprised by his good fortune, while the other seems to take it in stride. Both films establish a close tie between Bob and the police inspector who is pursuing him, but somehow there are extra layers of con games in The Good Thief , some involving the paintings of old and modern masters as temptations for larceny, and some involving Bob’s cynical awareness of his inevitable betrayal by his young male companion, who hopes to avoid being deported to a certain death in his native Algeria. Mr. Nolte projects such a surpassing intelligence and cunning that he becomes almost effortlessly superior to all the intrigues swirling around him. Strangely, I didn’t mind this big-star omniscience coming from a gnarled, grizzled, non-bankable “natural” like Mr. Nolte, who grew out of pretty-boy, all-muscles television celebrity to achieve the steely grandeur of another natural, the late Sterling Hayden (1916-1986).

The point is that The Good Thief is great fun despite its deficiency as a presumed thriller. Mr. Jordan, a published novelist and short-story writer, stays in my mind for the storytelling charms of his best movies in an up-and-down film career that’s spanned two decades, and these include, in my opinion (if not in the harsher judgment of the contentiously encyclopedic and eminently readable David Thomson), Mona Lisa (1986), The Miracle (1991), The Crying Game (1992), The Butcher Boy (1997) and The End of the Affair (1999). Among the incidental pleasures of The Good Thief are the scenery-chewing, villainous, virtual cameo performance by Ralph Fiennes as a thuggish art dealer on whom Bob has foisted a fake Picasso, and bit parts for fellow directors Emir Kusturica as a high-tech Russian Mafia type, and identical-twin auteurs Mark and Mike as Polish look-alike scam artists with a built-in-alibi modus operandi that would give the detectives on Law & Order conniptions. The girl in the movie seems to be in her teens, though she already seems to have done a lot of living in her short amoral life. I don’t agree with a colleague’s implied criticism of Mr. Nolte’s Bob for even reluctantly accepting the attentions of a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. Bob keeps pushing her off and pushing her off until his final gambling spree. He’s only human, even nearing 70. Needless to say, this old geezer was charmed.

Teenage Wasteland

Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow , from a screenplay by Ernesto Foronda, Justin Lin and Fabian Marquez, has aroused considerable controversy despite its less-than-shoestring budget. One thing is certain: Mr. Lin had the right of final cut, since he supervised the editing, and he took the editing credit for himself to prove it.

The film is constructed around the rites of passage of a group of teenagers full of suburban angst that leads them down the path of drug trafficking and petty criminality, with fatal consequences. Sound familiar, even overfamiliar? It would be if the kids were African-American or Latino or even Native American. But overachieving A-student Asian-Americans bound for the best Ivy League colleges behaving like hoodlums? Who ever heard of such a thing?

That Better Luck Tomorrow got made at all is something of a miracle in itself. As production notes describe the early industry reactions to the project: “Though the script was deemed insightful and provocative by its readers, financiers were not exactly knocking down Lin’s door. Investors responded to the material, but cowered at the idea of backing a potentially controversial film about a group of nihilistic Asian-American teenagers. Suggestions ranged from writing in a white lead to adjusting the screenplay for Latino actors. Lin set out to fund the film on his own. As Mr. Lin recalls, ‘I started out with ten credit cards, and I took out my savings. A low budget film has a budget of about five million dollars. We didn’t have close to that amount. We had such a minuscule fraction of that amount, we had people working for free along with donated equipment.’”

Somehow, additional financing for the film materialized, and Better Luck Tomorrow was lucky enough to be selected for the Sundance Film Festival, where following the film’s third Sundance screening, a heated Q&A ensued. One enraged audience member asked Mr. Lin how he could make such a bleak, negative, amoral film. The questioner reportedly went on to ask, “What kind of portrait is this of Asian-Americans? Don’t you have a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community?”

After Mr. Lin and his cast reportedly defended the film, the ubiquitous Roger Ebert stepped up for the clincher: “What I find offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ This film has a right to be about these people, and Asian-American characters have the right to be whatever they want to be.” Bravo, Roger! I agree completely. The enemy for critics should not be political incorrectness, but artistic incompetence and sluggish banality.

As for the film itself, Mr. Lin can be credited with assembling a behavorially cohesive cast of lesser-known or completely unknown Asian-American performers, some of whom have a startling number of credits for popular television shows and familiar movies without ever having escaped from the background of the mise en scène .

Parry Shen as Ben, the protagonist in this group of bored Asian-American overachievers in suburban Orange County, Calif., is not the leader of the pack, but he is its one restraining, rational presence in their restless and ultimately ruinous search for an exciting new identity. We sense that Ben and his buddies, the hot-tempered Virgil (Jason Tobin) and the more venturesome and eventually more dangerous Han (Sung Kang) and Daric (Roger Fan), are bound together by their collective insecurities. Somewhat apart from this group, but seeking to dominate it, is spoiled-rotten rich boy Steve (John Cho), who arouses resentment in the group-with fatal consequences. Indeed, Steve is so spoiled and supercilious that he passes on his hopelessly infatuated girlfriend Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung) for frustratingly platonic dates with Ben.

Ben’s story becomes more desperately drug-ridden and hallucinatory as the movie progresses. I suspect that Mr. Lin has been influenced in his expressionistically frenetic editing maneuvers by such recent exercises in zonked-out perceptions under the influence of hard drugs as Darren Aronofsky’s truly haunting Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Jonas Åberlund’s Spun (2003). Mr. Lin’s film falls somewhere in between as an experiment in decadence and despair.