The Art of the Steal doesn’t advance the nerdy intertextuality that has distinguished ironic crime films since Guy Ritchie, but writer-director Jonathan Sobol knows the ropes.
The characters engage in digressive, sub-reference–heavy conversations. Sobol compresses and cuts scenes to trailer-like tempo, freezing frames and captioning characters’ names, jobs, and sobriquets in stylish typefaces like the footnoted citations in a scientific journal or the marginalia from an ancient manuscript like the one that motivates the plot.
Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) is a washed-up art-heist wheelman who makes half a living as a bargain-basement Evel Knievel, jumping his motorcycle through flaming hoops at auto derbies. When his half-brother, Nicky (Matt Dillon), proposes stealing Gutenberg’s legendary second text, the Gospel of James, Crunch gets his old gang back together.
The plan is to swap the original with a forgery, but the crew finds an even better inspiration from a famous historical heist that Sobol relates via an ersatz silent-era pastiche that’s perfectly in keeping with the film’s glib, post-structuralist veneer.
The story twists in the third act with a quick-cut montage that reanalyzes the major scenes — all of which would piss off an impatient critic if it weren’t all so much fun. Jason Jones is funny as a dim Interpol agent who can barely keep his rage in check; Terence Stamp proves soulful and ironic as a retired art thief whose love of the work he steals is palpable.
In fact, the proliferation of exactly the right old dudes, including Kenneth Welsh as patriarchal fence Paddy, serves as a further testament to Sobol’s good taste.