As the history of the form demonstrates, and The Italian Job nicely illustrates, the big caper flick, depending which side of the Atlantic it hails from, generally moves in one of two different cinematic directions. In Europe, the film about some carefully planned, immensely complicated, and highly lucrative theft usually takes on comic overtones, with the crooks often portrayed as amiable bunglers and their crime as an exercise in farcical futility. In America, on the other hand, the movie usually deals quite soberly with the central crime --- as in many other fields of endeavor, we tend to lead the world in criminal activity, after all --- and shows its execution and effect as a mostly serious business.
The original Italian Job, a British picture directed by Peter Collinson, appeared in 1969 and starred Michael Caine, Noel Coward, and Benny Hill, whose presence underlines the movie's style and tone. Coward played an imprisoned crime boss who masterminds a big robbery in Turin, Italy, that involves creating a mammoth traffic jam that will frustrate the police and demand a considerable amount of tricky driving from his gang. Its fine cast, the exciting chases, and the unusual and highly successful casting of Coward provide a good deal of fun in keeping with the comedic slant of the European versions of the form.
The title of the new Italian Job is something of a misnomer, since the film only uses Italy for its opening sequences. Those sequences show a gang of expert thieves, led by John Bridger (Donald Sutherland), attempting to pull off Bridger's last big score: stealing a safe full of gold bars in Venice. They perform underwater surgery on the safe and flee with the gold in speedboats, pursued by the police, through the gorgeous canals of that remarkable city. The picture, in effect, begins all over again when the thieves fall out; or, rather, when one of them, Steve Frezelli (Edward Norton), double-crosses his colleagues, shoots Bridger, and leaves the rest to die in the cold waters of an Alpine lake, taking off with the whole $35 million-worth of solid gold.
The gang manages to survive the shooting and the sinking, of course, and resolves to pursue their former partner, punish him for his betrayal, and steal back the gold. They find him in Los Angeles, dwelling in a grand mansion equipped with all the usual luxuries and virtually impregnable security, happily enjoying the fruits of all their labors. They must then embark on the second complicated scheme of the film, the robbery that occupies most of the movie's time and provides the central caper --- really a sort of Italian-American job.
Big caper films naturally depend upon a recognition of the importance of machinery, in all senses of the word. They demand, for example, the coordination of a group of disparate people, each with a particular talent and, therefore, a particular role to play. The pictures employ the latest in technology to work their complicated magic. And such films obey the strictures of the clock --- another mechanism --- depending, for their suspense, on an awareness of time. When the caper goes wrong, as the rules demand, the fault always lies with some unpredictable human error, an organic disruption of the blind, cold logic of the machine --- people, somehow, cannot quite behave so coolly and orderly as an artificial device.
The gang in this remake consists of the usual specialists: the planner, Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), who has taken on Sutherland's mantle; an explosives expert, Left-Ear (Mos Def); a skilled driver, Handsome Rob (Jason Statham); and the mandatory computer whiz, Lyle (Seth Green), without whom no contemporary caper flick could possibly succeed. The group also adds a new and most attractive member, Stella Bridger (Charlize Theron), an expert locksmith and safecracker who previously worked for legitimate enterprises, but is now out to revenge her father's murder.
Within a narrow window of time, and working against a quarry as wily and expert as themselves (who also knows they intend to rob him), the gang must figure out a way to foil all the security, discover the whereabouts of the gold, and carry it away with them. This job also requires the creation of a colossal traffic jam --- and Los Angeles provides a far larger and more crowded canvas for that particular work than Turin --- and, as in the first movie, the brilliant deployment of a trio of Mini Coopers. The gang drives their little cars in an epic, exuberant chase sequence through the clogged streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles; down stairways, through buildings and subway tunnels; fleeing automobiles, motorcycles, and a helicopter.
In keeping with the mechanical quality and import of its form, the movie requires very little of its actors, and they mostly respond in kind. The short, square, impassive Wahlberg generally resembles an inert object, and, therefore, makes an appropriate choice for the gang leader. Everybody else functions pretty much according to a well-tested formula, and Theron, as usual, looks very lovely throughout.
In its new incarnation, The Italian Job lacks the sly comedy of the original, but often makes up for that deficiency with the gleaming polish of contemporary American cinema technology.
The Italian Job, starring Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Seth Green, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Franky G, Donald Sutherland; based on the film written by Troy Kennedy Martin; screenplay by Donna Powers and Wayne Powers; directed by F. Gary Gray.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.
City spoke with "Ex Machina" director Alex Garland about moving into the director's chair.