Gambler flicks can be a pretty predictable lot, and it’s all too easy to adhere to formula and end up with an entirely forgettable movie — see “Rounders” or the upcoming “Shade,” to name but two examples. Nonetheless, here we have Neil Jordan, a creative director whose films have been all over the map — from “Interview with a Vampire” to “Michael Collins” to “The End of the Affair” — rolling the dice on this genre with “The Good Thief” (Japanese title: “Gamble Play”). Luck must have been with him, because this one isn’t half bad.
Jordan claims to have been inspired by that nouvelle vague classic from 1965, Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le flambeur,” and “The Good Thief” certainly borrows several elements from it, notably its casino-heist plot and cool, honorable criminal hero. But the results on screen suggest he was more heavily influenced by the ultra-stylized French cinema of the 1980s, especially the early films of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson, with their seductive textures and light, quirky takes on thrillers.
Though his physical bulk makes him less than entirely convincing as a junkie, Nick Nolte was an inspired choice for the lead role of Bob, an American expat living on the French Riviera in Nice. Playing a legendary gambler and conman whose skills have lost their edge in the fog of a heroin habit, Nolte’s whiskey-ravaged growl and weatherbeaten face are perfect for a guy who’s indulged a bit too much in the good life and the bad; casinos and strip bars on the one hand, jail-time on the other. Respected — and carefully observed — by both the local police chief, Roger (Tcheky Karyo), and the underworld alike, Bob finds himself acting as guardian angel to a young eastern European prostitute named Anne (Nutsa Khukianidze), and following his friend Raoul (Gerard Darmon) on that yellow-brick road of all aging thieves: “one last big score.”
Raoul’s idea is a heist at the Monte Carlo Casino on the jackpot eve of the Grand Prix, the holy grail of all professional robbers. But the target is not the obvious one — the casino’s take — instead it’s a fantastically expensive collection of artwork purchased by the casino’s Japanese owners as bubble-era investments. Bob, who sees scamming and conning as his own creative art forms, proposes an elaborate scheme: a fake heist directed at the casino, subtly telegraphed to the cops, to divert them from the real break-in at a nearby vault where the art is stored. To get at the goods, Bob enlists the help of Vlad (director Emir Kusturica), a crazed hacker/programmer who designed the vault’s security system.
Complicating matters (and what’s a good heist flick without complications?) are Remi (Mark Lavoine), a pimp with a grudge against Bob for whisking Anne from his clutches; Said (Ouassini Embarek), an Algerian dealer-turned-snitch who’s also out to get Bob; and the cop Roger, who owes his life to Bob, and wants to stop him before he has to arrest him. Then there’s Bob’s apprentice, Paolo (Said Taghmaoui), a young hothead with a thing for Anne, although Anne herself seems to prefer Bob, if for no other reason than that he’s the only man who cares for her without desiring her as well.
There’s an interestingly sublimated relationship here (as there was in “Bob le flambeur”), in which Bob encourages Anne to sleep with Paolo, who shares his apartment and trust, if not his bed. It’s hard to say whether this represents a vicarious thrill, or if Bob’s trying to be paternal, but for once it’s nice to see an over-60 Hollywood actor recognize his age. “You look good for a man of your age,” says 17-year-old Anne blithely. “What age is that?” asks Bob, to which she deadpans: “Stone Age.” Badda-boom.
While the dialogue here isn’t as arch as, say, Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11,” it’s quite sharp. During one high-stakes moment at the roulette wheel, for instance, Bob declares to Anne one of the essential rules in gambling (at least in his book): “It’s not about winning; it’s about attitude.” That pretty much sums up “The Good Thief”: Nolte coasts through the film on an aura of sardonic, world-weary cool, the living embodiment of Leonard Cohen’s voice on the soundtrack. He is, as Dennis Hopper memorably called Dean Rockwell in “Blue Velvet” — “one suave motherf***er.”
“The Good Thief” may be about as memorable as a shot of foamy espresso, but it’s also just as enjoyable while it’s going down.
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