The Good Thief

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Neil Jordan
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 31
[See Japan Times movie listings]

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."