The Good Thief (2002)

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.
The Bob character in this is also a little rougher around the edges.  Nick Nolte plays Bob here, a sort of ex-pat gambler junkie, who, like Nolte himself, appears as though he has woken up from a 30 year alchohol-gambling-heroin binge.  When he is straight, Bob is a talented gambler, and an even more talented thief (those both seem to go together so well).  But he knows he that his luck is just about gone.  In Anne, a young Russian immigrant, he sees a sort of redemption.  While he is old enough to be her grandfather, he is drawn to her, in primarily a paternal way, although she enjoys teasing him with her nubile sexuality.  Determined to pull off a last big job and to--we can extrapolate--possibly set up Anna for life, rescuing her from a (short) life of prostitution and drugs.  So Bob decides to clean up, he handcuffs himself to his bedframe, and with the help of his friends and Anna, curbs his heroin use.

Nutsa Kukhianidze as Anne.
Several days later, and with a slightly clearer head, he assembles his team of heisters and plans to rob a Monte Carlo casino of its 80 million francs the night before the Grand Prix, or its priceless paintings, or... both.  This is where the film holds its cards close to its chest by letting us into most of the heist plot, but slowly revealing twists and turns as the supporting cast of eccentrics go through their trials and tribulations. Despite their familiar roles: locksmith, strongman, inside man, techy guy, they are all interesting variations on what now is sort of a cliched heist team--take Philippe, for instance, the body builder who we quickly learn has gone through a sex-change operation, and now goes by Phillipa.

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.)