Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, and

"The Score" is as close to a hat trick as any mainstream Hollywood entertainment in some time. Restoring the seductive style of the no-nonsense procedural heist movie to complete luster, this is the kind of pic that knows the difference between being masculine and being macho.

“The Score” is as close to a hat trick as any mainstream Hollywood entertainment in some time. Restoring the seductive style of the no-nonsense procedural heist movie to complete luster, this is the kind of pic that knows the difference between being masculine and being macho. While latter quality has reached depressingly new lows, the former has been in desperately short supply, and helmer Frank Oz manfully replenishes the stockpile and shows that he can switch from a superior comedy like “Bowfinger” to this meticulously detailed thriller as easily as switching suits. The project would be noteworthy solely as a kind of summit meeting for great thesps from Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando to Edward Norton and Angela Bassett, but behind the megawattage is a supremely solid movie, and the combo should help the Paramount/Mandalay release bag excellent B.O.

Studio’s ad campaign eschews Brando from its “big-head” imagery (matching key pair of De Niro and Norton) while suggesting that this is an action thrill ride — an undoubtedly irresistible proposition for a summer release, but far off the mark. Every sequence is staged and paced for maximum effect, but the pulse is deliberate and precise rather than overtly kinetic. It’s an outstanding case of form following content, as these are precisely the disciplined working qualities practiced by De Niro’s pro thief Nick. Whether Oz’s direction managed to cover for a script reportedly unfinished by production start and touched by several hands, including the incisive Lem Dobbs of “The Limey,” or whether script ultimately crystallized is impossible to tell from the viewing, since the final job is seamless.

Neatly divided into three sections, pic’s efficiency, tautness and taste for just the right dose of tension are immediately established in a sleek, shadowy 10-minute opening sequence that shows Nick breaking into a safe during an estate party. What’s different this time is not only the documentary-like treatment of the job, but Nick’s escape, which is a graceful, extended trip over the U.S. border to Montreal, where he lives, using his profits to run a fabulous-looking jazz club called NYC. It’s a serious club, too, as Oz liberally shows, hosting the likes of Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison for the lengthiest onscreen appearances these world-class swingers have ever had in a movie.

Setting, as well as De Niro’s distinct gravitas, also establishes Nick as a man in charge, and one who knows what he likes. When he informs casual lover Diane (Bassett) that he finally wants to quit his illegal trade and devote his life to her and the club, Oz’s camera frames the exchange in some stunning master shots that allow the viewer to take in the reality of the couple’s life while pointedly avoiding melodrama.

Nick has decided to make this change after his partner in crime for 25 years, Max (Brando), has already dropped by the club with an offer he may or may not refuse: to pull off a job at the massive Montreal Customs House — even though this violates Nick’s key rule of never stealing in his own neighborhood.

Brando’s Max is a kind of underworld Truman Capote, corpulently cuddly, old enough to not take too much of anything seriously.

Undeniably, there’s chemistry between De Niro and Brando, with the actors seemingly finding new layers in each scene. (Notably, while the pair share the “Godfather” legacy, they’ve made no previous films together.)

Rounding the circle is the appearance of Jack (Norton), who’s cased the Customs House for weeks under Max’s employ under the guise of being autistic. Nick’s doesn’t like working with partners, but Max’s long-developed methods of friendly persuasion, plus his willingness to promise to give Nick more of the take put the pieces in place and start an endlessly fascinating process of younger and older crooks designing the heist.

What intrigues is the sheer amount of work that goes into planning and execution, which is never overwhelmed by Hollywood’s usual appetite for bigger toys and bigger guns. Even the obligatory computer scenes, including a few smartly brief ones involving a wiggy hacker, are packed with suspense, as is each step toward the final deed.

“This takes discipline, more than talent,” Nick reminds Jack, looking enviously around the club Nick has built up. It’s a good summation of the filmic storytelling throughout.

The 35-minute finale is a superbly executed sequence of second-by-second action that has Oz, up to now a perfectly competent comedy director, putting on a clinic in how to deliver suspense.

And Brando, De Niro and Norton, among the three best movie actors of their generations, empower these extremely smart but flawed men with enough chinks to suggest that the whole masterful project may collapse like a house of cards.

The three share two scenes together, and what emerges is how they play three different, slightly off-key tones.

Though less costly than much of the summer competition, pic is second to none in the tech department. With years of working for masters like Conrad Hall and Owen Roizman — but only a handful of undistinguished d.p. credits — Rob Hahn emerges here as a new star among Hollywood lensers, drenching Jackson De Govia’s lavish yet realistic sets in stark shadows that feel like mortality. Howard Shore’s minimal and masculine score is of a piece with pic’s nature. Use of Montreal locations as themselves rather than as faux American backdrops reps a new way of justifying runaway productions.

The Score

Production

A Paramount Pictures release and presentation with Mandalay Pictures of a Horseshoe Bay/Lee Rich production. Produced by Gary Foster, Lee Rich. Executive producers, Bernie Williams, Adam Platnick. Directed by Frank Oz. Screenplay, Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, Scott Marshall Smith; story, Daniel E. Taylor, Salem.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Rob Hahn; editor, Richard Pearson; music, Howard Shore; executive music producer, Budd Carr; production designer, Jackson De Govia; art directors, Tom Reta, Claude Pare; set designers, Charlotte Rouleau, Claude Lafrance, Felix Lariviere-Charron, Celine Lamrpon , Lucie Tremblay; set decorator, K.C. Fox; costume designer, Aude Bronson-Howard; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Glen Gauthier; supervising sound editor, Ron Bochar; special visual effects, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor; additional visual effects, CIS Hollywood; special effects supervisor, Louis Craig; assistant director, David Sardi; second unit camera, Bud Davis; casting, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at Paramount Studio Theater, L.A., July 9, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 123 MIN.

With

Nick - Robert De Niro Jack/Brian - Edward Norton Max - Marlon Brando Diane - Angela Bassett Burt - Gary Farmer Danny - Paul Soles
With: Cassandra Wilson, Mose Allison.

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