The Good Thief: Nick Nolte in Needless Remake

Gangster remake is about little more than style.

IN THE ORIGINAL 1956 tale of a down-on-his-luck gambler looking for one last score, the hero was played by 49-year-old Roger Dchesne, still handsome with his gray hair, hat, trench coat, and cigarette. Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville's paean to American gangster flicks, didn't actually reach the U.S. until 1982, so it's hardly like this remake is stepping on the toes of a revered classic. In The Good Thief (which opens Friday, April 11 at the Harvard Exit), 62-year-old Nick Nolte now plays the hero. He smokes a lot, like Duchesne, but there the similarities end. In Melville's original, the narrator calls Bob "an old young man, legend of a recent past." In this serviceable, mildly diverting adaptation by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), Nolte's Bob is just old, a legend in no time but that of his own memory. Even with haggard, heroin-addicted Bob at its center, Thief gets off to a brisk, no-nonsense start. Jordan's camera stutters, trips, and freeze-frames among the posh casinos and piss-stinking alleyways of the Riviera. He introduces a forgettable polyglot cast of supporting characters and generic plot twists to a pulsing Euro-techno beat. There's a 17-year-old hooker (Nutsa Kukhianidze) Bob rescues from her pimp; there's his prot駩 (Sa鸞Taghmaoui) who falls for the tart; there's the kindly cop (Tch髹 Karyo) on Bob's trail; there's a casino to rob; and everyone looks swell doing it. (Also, Ralph Fiennes shows up in an uncredited few scenes as an art-world fence whose nastiness almost provides a credible counterbalance to Nolte's collapsing-building grace. He's a guy who'd help you stand up just for the pleasure of knocking you down again.) Then you have the inevitable laser beams and high-tech sensors protecting the vault, hacked by Bob's computer expert (director Emir Kusturica), at which point you sense that Jordan is losing interest in the project the closer it nears Mission: Impossible territory. Bob's gang wields flashlights, blowtorches, and pickaxes in a dank tunnel—but this stuff, too, feels dull and borrowed, without the novel kick of the underwater safe-cracking sequence in Sexy Beast. As Thief falls to stylish pieces, it's clear that Jordan cares less about the how-tos of crime than pure criminal style. Thief wants to celebrate Bob's panache, the way he wears his hat—if he had a hat, which he doesn't, which would help, which shows why these kinds of remakes don't really work anymore. (It's like hipsters staying up late in some dive bar, trading ironic repartee, then realizing—"My God, look at the time!"—they've got to get up the next morning to work as programmers.) When the heist falls apart, as in the original, Bob falls back on what he knows best and what has treated him worst—luck. Flambeur translates not just as "gambler" but as "high roller," which describes Bob's attitude perfectly. Before they enter the swank casino, Bob tells the rescued teen hooker that they've got to dress up and look the part. Jordan follows this advice. He hangs modern garb on a 47-year-old story that was nostalgic to begin with—Melville was originally elegizing Paris' lost prewar criminal demimonde—and makes it feel even more dated.

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