Remake of 'Italian Job' has plenty of drive

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Don't worry about a certain racing sequel coming out next weekend, "The Italian Job" is the real definition of "fast and furious."

Filled with easy-to-like characters, innovative action sequences and a story rife with momentum, the movie is as endearingly zippy as the BMW MINIs the heroes use to pull off their scam. Despite a theatrical/television trailer that reveals EVERYTHING - curse that Paramount marketing team - filmmaker F. Gary Gray ("Friday") crafts a spirited caper, even if one knows when all the plot twists are coming.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Charlie Croker, the role popularized by Michael Caine in the 1969 film it's loosely based upon. Charlie and his gang have just pulled off an audacious gold theft using the canals of Venice as their getaway. As the men celebrate their good fortune with a champagne toast, Charlie's mentor John (Donald Sutherland) dispenses the advice: "There are those who steal to enrich their lives and those who steal to define their lives."

However, one of the crew (Edward Norton) opts for some further enrichment and makes off with the gold while leaving his former comrades to die.

A year later, Charlie and the surviving members (Seth Green, Mos Def and Jason Statham) discover the turncoat living in Los Angeles. Joined by Stella (Charlize Theron), the safecracking daughter of their slain colleague John, the five hatch a plan to get the gold ... and to get even.

What separates a good heist movie from a routine one?


Italian Job ***


Mark Wahlberg leads a gang (that includes Charlize Theron, Seth Green and Mos Def) on a daring gold heist in this superior remake of the 1969 British film. Filled with easy-to-like characters and a story rife with momentum, the movie is as endearingly zippy as the BMW MINIs the heroes use to pull off their scam.

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Much like "Ocean's Eleven" from two years ago, "The Italian Job" realizes that it's not the surprises of the story but the humor and quirkiness of the individuals that makes the film stand up to repeat viewings. Gray and screenwriters Donna and Wayne Powers ("Deep Blue Sea") start with some vivid characterizations then cast against type to fill the roles.

The laconic Wahlberg ("The Perfect Storm") is hardly the person one would envision stepping into the shoes of the smarmy, fast-talking Michael Caine. But somehow his relaxed composure helps to make the more exaggerated aspects of the movie easier to swallow.

Also an unusual choice is "Snatch" lead Jason Statham as the character Handsome Rob. It would have been tempting to place some "Dawson's Creek"-type pretty boy in the part, but the bald, cockney Statham seems plausible based on his sheer charisma. In one of the funniest scenes, costar Green (Scott Evil from the "Austin Powers" franchise) does a dead-on impression of what he envisions Handsome Rob's pickup technique probably sounds like.

As the computer genius of the bunch, Green is a one-man army of one-liners. Especially funny is his obsession with claiming to have been ripped off by Napster. It's one thing to create a hilarious running gag involving the file sharing program; it's another to bring the creator, Shawn Fanning, in on the joke.

Sure, this latest "Italian Job" is a frothy distraction without a profound idea in its head. But those who claim the original British one is a superior film need to wipe the nostalgia from their eyes and watch that sloppy flick again.

Despite an entertaining finale, the original is often a chore to sit through. Aside from Michael Caine and Benny Hill (yes, THAT Benny Hill), the dozens of characters introduced are virtually interchangeable. And the first act is a narrative roller coaster of mismatched ideas. (The excruciatingly repetitive theme song alone is enough to make one want to drive off a cliff.)

This American updating is simply better ... whether one's been exposed to the spoiling trailers or not.