False Grooves


The trend of remodeling finger-snapping 1960s heist flicks—draining them of grooviness and tricking them out with fantasy-tech flimflam—rolls forward with The Italian Job, a committee project whose greatest claim to attention is an intermittent sangfroid. The original Brit-cult item—released in 1969, back when elaborate robbery scenarios still seemed supercool and ritzy-grungy Mediterranean locales still seemed glamorous—is no classic, but it had the good sense to border on farce and to anticlimax with a literal cliffhanging. Going back to The Asphalt Jungle, an integral element to the heist movie was the crime’s inevitable, entropic collapse; this way, the films could be about Greed and Fate. Today, with Hollywood’s market-researched devotion to happy endings, we get smash-and-grab thrillers with the thematic weight of The Price Is Right.

Although lopsidedly self-serious, The Italian Job is zesty in a workmanlike sort of way, providing supporting henchmen Jason Statham and Mos Def with pleasingly unsensational characters given to subtle twitches of idiosyncrasy. Otherwise, Michael Caine’s original lothario is replaced by a whitebread Mark Wahlberg, and the plot has been doubled up with a post-robbery backstabbing (the titular job is over and done with 20 minutes in) and a subsequent relocation from Venice to the more convenient Los Angeles for the purposes of revenge and loot. (As the plot’s engineered traffic jam is no longer Italiano, so much for the first film’s witty survey of the gridlocked Turin citizens gambling, flirting, and lounging in their cars.) The microprocessed grifts and stunt-car impossibilities fill out the second hour (makes you wonder, at most, how high-end thief teams got by before cell phones). But none of it is as laughably splendorific as the thoroughly Beckinsaled Charlize Theron, playing a hard-boiled safecracker who practices in her underwear.

Wide-open absurdity would’ve helped; instead, there’s a clotting of musical interludes and a general air of stoic grit. All you remember are the meaningless motes of texture: the 400-pound Maori gangster, the radicalized Russian pawnbroker, Seth Green’s devastating Statham imitation. The rest is just driving.

Things Maori occupy the primal stage in Niki Caro’s Whale Rider, a soft-centered exercise in New Zealander mythmaking that’s won more festival audience awards than any film since Life Is Beautiful. It’s hard to say what’s knocking them over in the Rotterdam-Toronto-Sundance aisles, unless it’s the 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai, a Maori girl marginalized within her already marginalized race. Like the film, Pai’s character is muddily conceived and ill-focused, but the coltish, tremulously delicate Castle-Hughes is a hypnotic camera subject.

Born into a family line of chieftains but unvalued as a girl, Pai struggles for the attention of her pigheaded traditionalist grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), who decides to teach his small seaside village’s boys how to be great warriors, a process that involves fighting with staffs and grimacing like a Sendakian Wild Thing. As we pine for the old fool’s overdue death, the neglected and humiliated Pai broods and wanders around Koro’s tense periphery for most of the movie, until a herd of whales gets washed ashore. Non-Maori writer-director Caro strives to poeticize the native sea legends (the lovely underwater whale footage is, alas, all digital), but the aboriginal hoopla comes off as tribal ritual for its own sake. Pai turns out to be merely a totem herself, and her story couldn’t sustain a fireside yarnspinning.