Movie Review: 'The Italian Job' (***1/2)

Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch (of Thieves)

The Spectrum

After stealing $35 million in gold bars, master safecracker John Bridger, played by an old but nimble Donald Sutherland, says:

"There are two kinds of thieves. The ones that steal to enrich their lives and the ones that steal to define their lives."

Bridger believes he and his wily crew of professional burglars fall in the latter category. But like many other heist films, "The Italian Job" portrays the third type of thieves - the kind that makes theft look like so much fun.

Loosely based on the original 1969 British film starring Michael Caine, director F. Gary Gray's update of "The Italian Job" plays out more like an action-packed version of 2001's "Ocean's 11."

But this works to the film's benefit. Although some old British film buffs protest the Hollywood remake of this limey classic, valued for its unique references to the mother country and Mini Coopers, there is no cause for concern, at least for American audiences. Gray's remake is pure entertainment. He might not have Caine or any incomprehensible British humor, but he does have two elaborate theft sequences and an ensemble cast entertaining enough to make the film worth seeing.

At the helm is Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), who wants to avenge the death of his mentor by robbing the man that took his life, as well as the score Croker and his pals stole in Venice, Italy. Joining him is the mentor's daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), a straight safecracker who normally works on the behalf of law enforcement.

Of far more interest, however, are Croker's cronies. And they all have unique nicknames befitting a Damon Runyon/Dick Tracy universe of charismatic henchmen. Jason Statham, in a role that combines the charm he had in "Snatch" and "The Transporter," is Handsome Rob, Croker's main wheelman who throttled his way into the career by setting the record in Los Angeles for the longest freeway chase. Told in a flashback, Gray comically portrays freewheeling Rob as a crowd of spectators cheer him on like O.J. Simpson.

Croker's explosives expert is Left Ear (Mos Def), who earned his reputation by blowing up the toilet bowl of the boy's room while in grade school. Matching the rapper's astute sensibilities, Left Ear plays the cool intellectual who wants to fill a library with his share of the score.

But the unexpected highlight of "The Italian Job" is Lyle (Seth Green), self-proclaimed "The Napster." Green forces the most laughter out of the audience, similar to the way British comic Benny Hill did as his counterpart in the original movie. Lyle touts himself as the original inventor of the file-sharing software before Shawn Fanning stole it from him in his Northwestern University dorm room. Or, as he puts it,

"(He said) he named it 'Napster' because it was his nickname, because of his nappy hair. It was because I was napping when he stole it from me!"

According to Lyle, his share of the score would buy "speakers so loud they blow woman's clothes off."

As a whole, the secondary characters compensate for the rather stolid performances of the main cast. Wahlberg is serviceable, capable of standing in as the lead, but without the wit of Caine, or, for that matter, of George Clooney's "Billy Ocean." If only the actor could conjure up the energy he had as front man of the Funky Bunch.

Ed Norton is even worse. Forced to perform in "The Italian Job" out of a contractual obligation with Paramount Pictures, the otherwise acclaimed actor mopes around, looking bored. An exact description would give away his key role in the story, but Lyle's assessment of what the character does with his wealth reflects how dull he is. Spying on him through a window, Lyle says,

"So what does a man with $35 million worth of gold do with it? He watches his big-ass TV."

But this isn't "Heat" (the best heist movie ever), and what matters more than the characters in "The Italian Job" is how exciting the triple Mini Cooper chase is in the subway tunnels or how well they pull off the underwater safe-cracking operation.

The real appeal of a movie like "The Italian Job" is its clever and amusingly outrageous depictions of the two key heists and all the steps the thieves took to pull them off. Slightly overlooked in "Ocean's 11," the most modern film that bears the easiest similarity to "The Italian Job," Gray exposes the intricacies of theft to the point that audiences members will probably want to try it themselves. It's similar to how people wanted to steal cars after watching "Gone in 60 Seconds."

The easiest explanation is that one of the screenwriters is Neal Purvis. He also wrote the script for the two most recent James Bond films, "The World is Not Enough," featuring a villain that could feel no pain, and "Die Another Day," which marked the debut of the world's first invisible car.

Although avoiding most of the excesses of overblown Bond action sequences, sometimes the thieves in "The Italian Job" have it too easy. Still, there's never a dull moment.

The Napster is partly to blame for the criminals getting by too easily. As the team geek, he finds a way to hack into the Los Angeles traffic control center, which allows him to determine which lights turn red and green. It's an interesting innovation for an action film, and it taps into the fantasies of any motorist caught in rush hour. But it also diminishes suspense.

Allowing The Napster to have this bird's eye view of the heist and the ability to determine the course of both the robbers and robbed give the thieves the power of God. And since God can do whatever he wants, why bother challenging him?

Only the most jaded filmgoer will actually care about this minor point, though. "The Italian Job's" saving grace is moments such as when Handsome Rob's speedboat squeezes its way through two narrow boats on the Venice waterways. Any film that pays homage to some of the best moments in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" deserves to be seen.

"The Italian Job" opens in area theaters May 30.