THE GOOD THIEF is a both great character film and heist film. They call it a "retelling" of Jean-Pierre Melville's classic film BOB LE FLAMBEUR about an aged gambler and heist orchestrator who wants to pull the fabled "one last heist." He is is drawn to a misguided teenaged girl who is at risk of going down all the wrong paths -- drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. Bob assembles his crew of heisters and together they plot to rob a casino, although it never goes quite as planned. In typical Melvillian fashion (as in the filmmaker, not the author), there is an equally interesting detective who knows Bob is planning a big job and is determined to catch him. Many of Melville's films offer up two foils: one criminal, and one police, and shows us how they are often two sides of the same coin, seperated only by their job descriptions, but are basically driven by respective desires to be the pursued and the pursuer. This is a theme that was also explored in films like HEAT, and even THE DARK KNIGHT.
Up until now, everything in the description above could be applied to either BOB LE FLAMBEUR or THE GOOD THIEF. The basic stories are quite similar, but after that they part dramatically. While Melville told his story mainly in and around Paris, director Neil Jordan sets THE GOOD THIEF in Monte Carlo and Nice. But make no mistake, this isn't the picturesque Cote D'Azur you might imagine, it is the seedier world of the backstreets, dingy apartments, dingier nightclubs, and bars. Not to mention drug use, violence, prostitution, illegal immagration, racial tension, and the less glamourous side of gambling. Jordan's film resonates with contemporary France, a country struggling with a massive North African population of both legal and illegal immigrants, all trying to find their road to success, in varying degrees of legitimacy.
|Nick Nolte as Bob.|
|Nutsa Kukhianidze as Anne.|
Although the heist is the climax of the film, it is not the really the main theme. It is sort of the engine which drives the plot forward, but it really is a device which enables them to reveal their fears, anxieties, and passions to each other and to us. When the heist finally goes down, Bob is in the casino gambling with Anne, as an alibi, and he is telling her his rules of gambling. And while this is part of The Plan, we get the sensation that this is really the point of it all for him, to pass on wisdom to this young woman, to impart something on her that will make her take her life in a new and healthier direction. And this is really where Jordan's strengths are, in the intimate interactions between mismatched characters.
It is also a very stylish film--even if it feels a little dated now--with the dramatically expressive colour palette, and the 90s new agey soundtrack (some Leonard Cohen and U2 b-sides there), but is is a definite worthwhile watch. This is the role that Nick Nolte was born for, and with an excellent supporting cast of European actors, an interesting locale, and some smart plot work, Jean-Pierre Melville would probably be proud of this thoughtful reinterpretation of his classic French crime story.
(EDIT: The last paragraph I originally got the age of the film mixed up! I thought it was older, a more 90s film. But it was 2002. I guess time flies when you're having fun! Anyways, I've altered that paragraph to reflect that.)