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The Good Thief

The past few years have seen much of Nick Nolte's private turmoil splashed across the pages of supermarket tabloids. A notorious alcoholic known for unabashed excess in his younger years, Nolte was jeered at by no less than Katherine Hepburn for "falling down drunk in every gutter in town" (his famous retort: "I've got a few to go yet") but reportedly gave up drinking in 1990. He relapsed in a spectacularly public fashion in September 2002 when he was arrested for driving under the influence and it was discovered that he'd been taking the "date rape" drug GHB, a potent narcotic. Having completed a stint in rehab, Nolte's apparently managing his problems well (a recent anonymous report that he'd violated parole was dismissed by a judge), but his battle with the bottle has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing the excellent work he's done in the past few years — especially his role as an aging, heroin-addicted gambler in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief (2002). It's a role that fits Nolte like a well-worn suit — perhaps in part because Nolte was battling his own addictions and desperation during the making of the film, but also because it gave the still-impressive actor a chance to play one of the most complex, well-written characters of his career. A respectful and smart reworking of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 caper film Bob Le Flambeur, The Good Thief focuses on Bob Mantagnet, a down-on-his-luck American gambler living in Nice. Rumpled and weathered, he's a sophisticated Old World charmer, beloved by much of his seedy corner of the French underworld. Bob's best friend, Roger (Tchèky Karyo), is a policeman less concerned with the letter of law than with what will befall his old friend if he gets arrested again. He's also adored with puppy-like devotion by his young protegé, Paulo (Saïd Taghmaoui) and earns both trust and respect from a sexy, sullen teenage prostitute named Anne (Nutsa Kukhanidze) when he gallantly rescues her from her unpleasant pimp and lets her crash at his apartment. But the ex-master thief is broke, a junkie left with little but a threadbare wardrobe and a gift for gab — so when he's lured back to pull one last, profitable job, Bob goes cold turkey and starts to plan the complex heist of a cache of valuable paintings stored in a warehouse. What Bob forgets to plan for is the human element, and betrayal by those closest to him could send him up the river for good.

*          *          *

Director Jordan has played around with a variety of styles and genres, including atmospheric dramas (The End of the Affair), costumed epics (Michael Collins) and even fairy tale-horror (In the Company of Wolves). With The Good Thief he returns to the territory of what are, arguably, his two very best films, Mona Lisa and The Crying Game, playing a jazzy, atmospheric riff on Melville's classic heist story. Cinematographer Chris Menges takes us inside smoky, seedy gambling parlors and lavish casinos, making both look beautiful and decadent, while Jordan keeps the film's pace zipping along with whiplash sharp transitions that echo the crackling dialogue. Shambling through it all is Nolte, graceful and dissolute yet still handsome, his gravelly voice betraying countless years of booze, broads, and cigarettes. Perfectly accepting of his addictions, Bob takes a steadfastly 12-step approach to his life, dwelling one day at a time in his own earth-bound purgatory (eluding Roger by ducking through an AA meeting, he cheerily says, "Hi, I'm Bob and I'm an alcoholic" as he breezes past the group and out the back door), as matter-of-fact about his fate if he's caught as he is about kicking heroin for the duration of the job. Discussing his portrayal at the Toronto Film Festival, Nolte admitted to doing "a little bit of heroin" every day during the filming — you know, for the part. Watching The Good Thief and knowing the meltdown towards which Nolte was heading, one can't help wondering where the actor ends and the character begins — and to Nolte's credit, it's impossible to tell. His portrayal is world-class, the sort that would have generated Oscar buzz but for Nolte's much-publicized difficulties, a bravura performance at the center of dazzling, funny, complex heist film with a heart. Fox's DVD release offers The Good Thief in both anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-frame transfers. Director Jordan loves using light and shadow to great effect, and the visuals in this picture vary from artful, artificially lit interiors to blazing, sunny exteriors — the transfer is very good, with even the darkest scenes well defined. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very good, but even in theatrical release the mumbling, accented actors (as well as the growly Nolte) were occasionally unintelligible, seemingly by design — as good as the sound is here, you may find yourself wanting to skip back now and then to figure out just what the heck they're saying. Extras include a very entertaining commentary track by Jordan, offering both technical anecdotes and insight into his intent in making the film ("I wanted it to be a study of character more than a movie about gambling, more than a heist movie," he says. "I wanted it to be a movie about somebody coming back to life and finding some kind of redemption, albeit through a story of crime and a story of deceit"); a six-minute "making-of" promo featurette that doesn't offer anything of real value (watch the film first, to avoid possible spoilers); and seven deleted scenes with optional director's commentary, including a couple of scenes of Bob shooting up (Jordan says he felt these scenes "overstated what we knew already.")
—Dawn Taylor

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