If you described a movie that starred Nick Nolte as a burnt-out tough guy going through painful withdrawal amid much talk of addiction and hitting rock bottom, you’d think it was a brilliant fly-on-the-wall documentary. Regrettably, The Good Thief is stuck almost entirely in the world of fiction—it’s an affably seedy tale of high-stakes gambling and thievery set on the French Riviera, inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1955 noir Bob Le Flambeur—though its few discomfiting scrapes with reality turn out to be its most memorable moments. Nolte stars as Bob, a winded gambler who at film’s start looks about a day and a half away from reprising the actor’s mugshot that so memorably graced the front page of the New York Post. Fortunately for him (and unfortunately for us), he cleans up his act when he runs out of cash and decides to pull a heist that involves tunneling into a posh Monte Carlo casino to snatch a cache of priceless art the likes of which the Louvre could only dream about. This, of course, requires assembling a motley crew of rogues to assist him: a bodybuilding transvestite, a pair of twins (American filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish), a guitar-wielding tech-geek (Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica), and, most memorably, a 17-year-old vixen (newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze, zapping the screen with the same jailbait wattage that young Natalie Portman brought to The Professional) determined to get Bob in the sack after he rescues her from a prostitution ring but eventually settles with his hothead protégé (Said Taghmaoui) instead.
Giving off the same excessively colorful, multicultural vibes as Jonathan Demme’s French New Wave homage The Truth About Charlie, The Good Thief is likewise a jazzy, intermittently absorbing movie about charmed lowlifes—it strains so hard to be bad to the bone that it can’t help but revealing its twinkling heart of gold. (The reason it’s called The Good Thief winds up having little to do with Bob’s success as a thief.) Photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission) and crisply edited by Tony Lawson, the film has style and atmosphere to burn, and often does so with flamboyantly explosive results. But a pungent crisis of conscience slowly rears up out of Bob’s swank Nice apartment, and it’s not from the puke bucket that rests next to the recovering junkie’s bed. It’s a dilemma that lies not in the film’s tone but in its haphazardly routine storytelling.
Director Neil Jordan, back in friendly territory after running amok on the audacious The Butcher Boy, In Dreams and The End of the Affair, seems determined to keep the picture’s momentum as rigorous as possible, and it moves along at a sharp pace without jumping the rails. But where it goes is familiar and stale—the glamorous and seductive French locations are apparently in service of disguising the plain old Hollywood of the plot. After dealing with Ocean’s 11, The Score, Heist, and too many other recent movies about crooks after the big score, the only way for The Good Thief to hit its marks would have been for Jordan to push it into the rougher, more introspective character-driven territory that those previous entertainments stayed away from. But even with the drugs and the gambling and a host of oddballs who are thankfully never romanticized to the point of nausea, the film is ultimately much too sanitary for its own good. All of the danger our heroes are placed in is fleeting and inconsequential; the odds of their success are about as good as standing pat on 20 in a hand of Blackjack.
The one thankful reprieve from the hygiene of this Americanized formula is Nolte’s distinctly American presence, which is far more alluring and dangerous than the film wants Bob to be. Riffing on dialogue that stretches from French pop music to the works of Picasso (“He stole from everyone!” is how one thief admires another) to the allegorical implications that preclude spinning a Roulette wheel, Nolte displays a feistiness that’s been absent from his work since he sacrificed all of his visible charm to overstuffed dramas like Affliction and a few too many bizarre Alan Rudolph movies. But as the abrasion of his early scenes shooting heroin and vomiting in the street begins to thankfully recede, the narrative flaccidity that enters as a substitution makes you wish the film would have kept up its prescient aura of repulsion. Jordan clearly saw something in Nolte—a weakness, a volatility, a spirit—that nobody else has for quite some time, and gave him a suitably chaotic role. But Bob is a brilliant character—seedy yet dapper, frenzied yet tender, a crook yet honorable, all at once—in a film that clearly isn’t interested in exploring him to any satisfying degree of intimacy, and his multitude of interesting qualities fade as the film toes the line with increasing fortitude. Nolte has recently gone on record about how much he hates making lousy Hollywood films, but with The Good Thief and The Hulk waiting on the horizon, I’m curious to see when his choice in projects will begin to reflect that animosity. The Good Thief reminds us he can act; now all he needs is a movie that deserves him.