Heavy Grifting


A friend of mine has a nickname for villians: She calls them “crims,” a cuddly-sounding shorthand that applies to the glossy new British series Hustle. It presents the life of a confidence trickster as midway between glorious lark and glamorous career. No nasty stuff like violence or extortion here; these strictly white-collar crooks use brains not brawn, their devious schemes unfurling so so elegantly you almost forget there are victims involved.

This 18-episode BBC production is being broadcast here by AMC, a network that until now has been running classic movies. Presumably AMC felt secure about plunging into serial television because Hustle feels so cinematic. The obvious recent model is Ocean’s 11, with its feel-good focus on the crime gang’s expertise and camaraderie, as well as echoes of (and direct references to) The Sting, The Italian Job, and The Grifters. The Saul Bass–style opening credits and slick soundtrack of spy-movie-flavored drum ‘n’ bass make you want a tub of popcorn pressed between your thighs. But Hustle also replicates the downside of current blockbuster movies, too often resembling a liqueur commercial. These characters don’t walk—they glide through the London financial district’s streets, which literally seem paved with gold. The action is continually broken up by strange slow-mo sequences of the team members striding away from some successful con with smarmy smiles frozen on their faces, aglow with job satisfaction.

The leader of the gang is Mickey Stone, a character made immensely likable by Adrian Lester, a superb black British theater actor known to American audiences for his role as the presidential candidate’s right-hand man in Primary Colors. “King of the long con,” Stone is implausibly graceful and kindly. This i
s a principled bad guy who constantly reminds us, “It’s not just about the money.” Nope, it’s for the love of the well-crafted con and for his makeshift “family” of rogues. These include Ash, a “fixer” who constructs sets for their fake businesses; glamorous Stacie, who often poses as a secretary or publicist in their ambitious stings and whose eerie beauty makes canny businessmen lose their wits; cockney charmer Danny; and Albert Stroller (played by Robert The Man From U.N.C.L.E Vaughn), an illustrious old-timer who adds an extra jot of sophistication to the operation. This syndicate is almost syndicalist, its members not only living together in a fancy hotel suite but looking out for each other’s welfare like some socialist collective. When new recruit Danny complains about his pathetic take from the last job (equivalent to $20,000 for six weeks’ work) and demands to know where the money went, Mickey points out that some of it goes toward “Albert’s pension” and that another chunk is earmarked for Ash’s ex-wife, a former grifter now crippled in a nursing home after a career of getting hit by cars for insurance money.

Beyond the fiction of honor among thieves, a bigger scam lurks at the heart of this pleasantly distracting drama: that their crimes harm only the greedy and corrupt. The idea that “you can’t cheat an honest man” is a constant; the victims are always disgustingly wealthy types who will do anything to get richer. (Of course, the Hustle crew frequently bilks poor honest folk out of small amounts of cash to raise funds for its bigger scams, but the contradiction barely registers thanks to the swiftly moving camerawork and tightly plotted story lines.) Since the marks include creeps like the vice-ridden snob who ran a government utility into the ground and was given a “golden parachute” of half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money, the show encourages you to see our hustlers as well-dressed angels put on earth to judge and punish the ruling class, Robin Hoods stealing from the rich and giving to . . . well, each other, but never mind.

Hustle presents grifting as an aspirational lifestyle. You get no sense of the strenuous, nerve-racking side of career crime as depicted in, say, The Sopranos, where the grinding routine of blood, sweat, and tears taxes the fragile loyalty between mafiosi. Thief, a promising new crime drama that premieres on FX in March, starts out looking a lot like Hustle as we watch the flawlessly synchronized teamwork of a crew of burglars led by Nick Atwater (played by another terrific black actor, former Homicide star Andre Braugher). Disguised as sewer repairmen, they tunnel their way inside a San Francisco bank; Atwater’s so suave he even fields a cell phone call mid-crime from a police officer who wants to discuss some trouble his teenage stepdaughter’s gotten into. But moments later the facade of er-professionalism collapses and a whole chain of complications erupts—the getaway is botched, the stolen money turns out to belong to a violent Chinese trio, and Nick’s real family and thug family both begin to unravel. Instead of Hustle‘s unrealistic capers, we’re plunged into an equally implausible soap opera as the problems pile on. Hopefully this overkill of plot twists is just series finale syndrome in reverse—an opening-episode gambit to snag viewers—and the show will settle down to work on its more subtle elements, like the well-shaded interactions between Nick and his female boss.

The germ of an interesting idea is already there in Thief: the notion that crime, originally chosen as an alternative to a punch-the-clock mundanity, becomes its own kind of dead end. In the fantasy glamour world of Hustle, con men are free from life’s rules and restrictions. Mickey recounts a story about his honest dad (who worked his whole life at a dull job, only to croak before he made it to retirement), then asks one of his team, “You wanna be regular people? Go and have your life run by bosses, bank managers, and politicians.” But in Thief, even the outlaws have people yanking their chains, whether loan sharks, corrupt politicians, or just family members. As Mickey himself would tell you, you can’t get something for nothing.

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