Remakes rarely improve on the original, but can make a great deal more money with the right actors and a smart promo campaign. Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” a flashy rehash of a dull 1960 Brat Pack movie, made a quarter of a billion dollars for its producers thanks to a stellar cast and slick production values. But there’s no foolproof formula for success, as Soderbergh found out when his $50 million remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi classic “Solaris” died a death at the box office last year.
A proven success in Europe for French and Italian films often leads to a modest run in the arthouse cinemas of the U.S., but the same film remade in
English with Hollywood stars can make get a nationwide release and reach a much larger audience. Jean-Pierre Melville’s seminal French heist flick “Bob Le Flambeur” wasn’t exactly tops among the certified Euro-classics crying out for a remake. Perceived as a radically different policier when it was released in 1955, it was quickly eclipsed by more exciting work from the generation of French filmmakers that followed Melville in the 1960s. The
film’s slight storyline and cast of actors with no international profile make the original a rarely seen obscurity for the modern mainstream film fan compared to Godard’s “Breathless” and Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player.”
But Neil Jordan has taken on the task of revamping the film as “The Good Thief,” an entertaining homage to Melville’s downbeat original that adds wicked twists and turns to the plot and provides a great central role for veteran character actor Nick Nolte.
Nolte plays a dissolute French-American gambler and ex-thief with chronic heroin and booze habits and a losing streak with no end in sight. Bob sleeps through the glorious sunshine of the Riviera during the day to stumble out after sunset into a lurid underworld of pool halls, gambling halls and drug dens. A self-destructive wreck blowing the last of his money on slow horses, Bob is about to hit rock bottom when an old friend tempts him with a plan to rob the casino in Monte Carlo on the night before the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
The plan is a deception — the real target is not the casino safe but the priceless art collection bought by the casino owners to give the place some class. Not the paintings hanging on the casino walls — they’re fakes. The real masterpieces are stored in a high-security vault in the basement. Bob isn’t just a gambler and a thief, he’s also an aesthete, and the lure of the art coupled with his growing interest in Ann, a beautiful teenage streetwalker from Eastern Europe (Nutsa Kukhianidze) gives him the incentive to kick his bad habits. Handcuffed to his bed for a few days, he emerges clean and sober into the daylight, and makes a fresh start on his life of crime under the watchful eye of police detectives suspicious about his renewed vitality.
The complex plot weaves many abiding Jordanian preoccupations — religion, redemption, and even a little gender-bending — into the thin fabric of Melville’s story. From the Calvary reference of the title and Bob’s deliberate embrace of his Judas, a police informer infiltrating his gang, to his salvation of the teen Mary Magdalene from the clutches of her pimp, Jordan enriches the plot with Biblical textures familiar to us from his more personal early films. Trainspotters will have a field day with the cast — hip Bosnian director Emir Kusturica makes a cameo as the high-tech expert who designed the alarm system at the casino and is the only one who knows how to crack it, and Tcheky Karyo, the assassin trainer from Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita,” plays the detective who’s been tailing Bob for so long that they’ve become begrudging friends. Beautifully shot by Chris Menges, “The Good Thief” is a stylish, glittering thriller driven at a brisk pace through the chicanes of Jordan’s plot by a raucous soundtrack of trashy
French pop and a bravura turn by its star, Nick Nolte, no stranger himself to at least a few of Bob’s vices, as his gorgon-like LAPD mugshot attests.
Nolte’s effortless confidence as he struts through a demimonde where all facts are lies and all sinners saints, lifts this three-card monte of a film above its cliched heist-genre roots and trumps “Q&A” as his career-best role to date.
Neil Jordan fans take note that the director will make a rare TV appearance with PBS talk show host Charlie Rose on April 2 at 11 p.m., the night “The
Good Thief” opens in New York and selected theaters elsewhere for a limited run.