Just who’s ripping off who, here?



Rating: * * Director: Frank Oz Running time: 125 minutes Language: English
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A movie can have the best ingredients, ideas and intentions but still slip on a banana peel, as “The Score” neatly demonstrates. Directed by veteran artisan Frank Oz and boasting an extravaganza cast of Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, “The Score” is mindful of a handsome real-estate agent whom you heard very good things about and decide to trust about a property in Florida, only to have him hand over a chunk of swamp land swarming with alligators. “You can do great things with land like this,” he enthuses. “Think mangroves in the garden pond. Think handmade wooden deck. Think . . . Swiss Family Robinson!” Yeah, right.

Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando in “The Score”

Still, there are some moments that yield, well, moments. This primarily comes from the personalities and subsequent chemistry between the three main characters, whom we must admit are a treat to see assembled in a single frame. The wonder is Brando, who at this point in his career, has become more of a massive piece of furniture than anything else. There he sits (or rather, sinks) in a sofa that is completely obscured by his presence to the point that Brando himself becomes that sofa. A sofa that spouts worldly wisdoms while pouring himself one Tom Collins after another. He’s a wreck, but a huge and spectacular one.

Playing Brando’s protege is De Niro, who displays some quick, on-his-feet action moves but is prevented from doing very much else. De Niro’s role is that of professional thief/safe-breaker Nick whose skill is such that he can break into anything and come away unscathed. But his last haul in New York was a close call, and Nick starts thinking about quitting his secret profession to concentrate on the legit side of his life: running a jazz club in Montreal. Nick’s fence and broker Max (Brando) brushes off Nick’s apprehensions by baiting him with the biggest potential catch of his life: a 16th century French scepter stowed inside the Montreal Customs House. Nick’s cut is $4 million. Nick says no, the risks are too high.

Whereupon Jack (Norton) arrives on the scene, sent by Max to persuade Nick. Jack is young, smart and an ace actor who is impersonating a mentally disabled janitor hired by the Customs House to work on the late shift. Jack has cased the place inside and out, knows the security system, the habits of the guards, etc. Jack goes to work on Nick and convinces him that they can’t lose. And when Max tells Nick a sob story about his own debts and how this scepter will cancel them out, Nick has no choice but to locate his black ski-mask and get cracking.

A project like this takes a huge amount of preparation — and Oz takes us through it all, in tedious detail. During the process, Jack begins to have doubts about Nick. Paranoia runs high when Nick tells him that after the heist, they are to meet back at Max’s house to divide the cash. Jack feels sure this is a trap to cut him out of the picture, so he moves to double-cross Nick just when he has the scepter in his hand and is making the getaway (after 15 minutes in which we are forced to watch Nick drill holes in the safe, fill it with water and lower a small explosive into it while suspended in the air, straddling a surveillance camera). Is Nick prepared for such a scenario? Does victory go to the smooth and smart-alecky Jack or the mature Nick? Trouble is, at this point, we don’t really care.

Movies like “The Score” probably herald a new era of action movies, though we would appreciate a better story, even in an action film. When Oz created this he could not have foreseen the horrible events of Sept. 11, but he is careful to eliminate violence, bloodshed and mayhem. His approach underscores the state of current moviemaking, with its depictions of violence with awful (and unnecessary) accuracy. As it is, “The Score” can be viewed, if not with passionate interest, then at least with peace of mind — here’s a work that deals with something dealable: old-fashioned robbery using tool kits, a clash of brain powers, the con-or-be-conned ending. And not one person dies.

Such a movie could have built up the characters (and such a wealth of material, too) a la “The Sting,” but Oz chooses instead to concentrate on the hardware (and I mean hardware) side of Nick’s profession. The range of electric drills, welders and screwdrivers he has at his disposal is impressive, but hey, it would have been nice to see other facets of the trade: how the broker works, how deals are negotiated, how Nick manages a double life and so on. On the other hand, if your calling is to crack heavyweight safes, then “The Score” could be hugely instructive.