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The Italian Job   B-

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writers: Donna Powers, Wayne Powers
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Seth Green, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Donald Sutherland.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Italian Job can theoretically be billed as counter-programming, the default status of any summer movie not aimed solely at 15-year-old boys. Despite that, it contains the same goofy fast-paced thrills exhibited by every other warm-weather flick. It just skews the demographic a little older -- mindless fun, yes, but grown-up mindless fun nonetheless. For that, I suppose, we should be grateful.

Caper films depend almost entirely upon pace and timing, which The Italian Job has in spades. Director F. Gary Gray dispenses with every conceivable piece of excess baggage, focusing solely on the centerpiece gold heist and the bare-bones motivation behind it. Based on a 1969 Michael Caine film (though very little remains), it begins with the carefully timed theft of $36 million in bullion from a Venice safe, orchestrated by master thief Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg) and his mentor John (Donald Sutherland). Their success comes to a grim halt, however, when weaselly underling Steve (Edward Norton) double-crosses the whole gang, shoots John in the chest, and makes off with the gold.

Plausibility takes it on the chin in these early scenes: by my count, the gold should be mired on the bottom of a canal and the heroes dead of hypothermia before the end of the first reel. But no matter. The theft itself is neat, and the ensuing chase through the Venice canals has plenty of verve. Once Steve punches John's ticket, all that's left is to hunt the bastard down and take back the goodies. So a year later, Charlie reassembles the surviving team -- hacker-nerd Napster (Seth Green), demolitions nut Left Ear (Mos Def), and getaway man Handsome Rob (Jason Statham, who's getting very good at movies like this), along with John's straight-arrow daughter Stella (Charlize Theron) -- with news that Steve has resurfaced in LA. He has a scheme to reclaim the gold: elaborate, of course, requiring far-fetched software, intricate planning, and a really cool trio of Mini Coopers (the only element left over from the Caine original). But ice-cold revenge will not be denied, and even when complications arise, Charlie's plan still holds its punch.

It's a good thing too, because without that punch, The Italian Job would be in deep trouble. There's nothing terribly original about the setup, and the performances are largely hit-and-miss. Norton has the worst of it. He's a great actor, but seems very ill at ease in this stock villain role, and fails to generate the required amount of loathsomeness. With five or six lovable heroes arrayed against him, you get the sense that he's hopelessly outnumbered, like an irritating kid begging to get beat up by the popular crowd. Hardly the makings of a Class-A bad guy. Wahlberg and Theron have a little more energy, but their bland good looks never translate to anything more than basic watchability. The most enjoyable performances are actually the support: Green, Def, and Statham, who get the cool one-liners and neat things to do while the two leads make eyes at each other.

The Italian Job's real strength lies in Gray's direction, which rarely strays from the task at hand. Whenever ponderous dialogue or undue distractions threaten to derail the proceedings, he rapidly shuttles us back to the fun stuff. The caper itself has a nice array of bells and whistles, and while it strains credibility sometimes, it's clever and well-executed. You never get lost or bogged down watching it all come together. Gray brings a lot of energy to the action scenes, and the skill invested in it always keeps us entertained. With those nifty Minis whizzing around Hollywood, The Italian Job stays light on its feet long enough to let us ignore the trouble spots.

It's also interesting to note that, while The Italian Job's mayhem factor is reasonably high, the violence really isn't. Gunplay remains fairly minimal (limited to Steven's various acts of betrayal), and Gray is too juiced by the payoff to bore us with shootouts and showdowns. While it'll never make the Christian Coalition's approved viewing list, its PG-13 rating is fully justified: something all too rare amid the MPAA's hypocritical fiats. Ironically, those most likely to watch The Italian Job need not worry about the ratings; they're well past the drinking age. But even adults need a good car chase every now and then, a service this well-made piece of popcorn fluff is more than happy to provide.

Review published 06.02.2003.

* * *

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