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film: Steal Away

Nick Nolte's stunning performance as a down-and-out gentleman burglar is reason enough to catch Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief."


"The Good Thief" is something of a departure for Neil Jordan (just as the "Ocean's Eleven" remake was for Steven Soderbergh), who usually tackles more challenging fare, like his recent Graham Greene adaptation, "The End of the Affair," or his gender-bending "The Crying Game." But here, again like Soderbergh, he's been inspired to remake a lighthearted classic: "The Good Thief" is based on the 1955 French crime caper "Bob le flambeur." But perhaps even more so, Jordan appears inspired by his star's bloated, weathered face, zooming in for close-up after close-up, as Nick Nolte rasps out the kind of tough talk you go to heist movies to see.

Nolte plays Bob Montagnet, a worn-out thief-turned-gambler with a puffed-out, leathered visage and a drug problem. A self-described lost soul, Bob hangs out in dimly lighted clubs in the south of France, pondering why that the one big score or one big win has so far escaped him.

But one not-so-enchanted evening, everything changes. By chance, Bob meets up with a husky-voiced young drifter named Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), newly arrived from Eastern Europe. Though she's hardly an innocent, Anne's youth and freshness seem to invigorate Bob, and she becomes instrumental in the elaborate multilayered robbery he masterminds.

The details of the heist are conveyed in a series of rapid-fire scenes. And while it's not always easy to follow exactly what's happening, our comprehension doesn't seem terribly important. It's as if Jordan wants us instead to see the movie as a feast of faces: There's the silver-haired, raised-eyebrow elegance of Gerard Darmon as Bob's accomplice; the passionate dark eyes of Said Taghmaoui as Bob's young protege; Kukhianidze's gamine loveliness; and the long, almost equinelike profiles of twin actors Mark and Michael Polish. Not to mention the perfectly etched cheekbones of "The Very Well-Known Actor" who appears in a delicious, unbilled cameo as a shady art dealer, who hisses to Bob's crew that if things don't go as planned, "what I do to your faces will definitely be Cubist."

But don't assume for a second that this movie belongs to anyone but Nolte. It's all his, and he wears Bob like an aged-softened pair of expensive Italian loafers. "Win or lose," he advises his younger acolytes in that half whisper/half croak voice, "do them both with grace." It's an apt descriptor that fits his performance as well. ****

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