The Good Thief” is a winning hand. Audaciously retooling Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1955 French heist thriller-cum-character study “Bob le flambeur” as a cluttered, crowd-pleasing, multinational caper movie, writer-director Neil Jordan delivers easily his most satisfying work since 1992’s “The Crying Game.” Central to auds’ enjoyment is Nick Nolte’s complex, mischievous perf as tarnished knight Bob Montagnet, a washed-up gambler and addict who envisions one last score as redemption for his recent sins. Sure, it’s all been done before, but seldom with this degree of vigor and panache. Sold as an exotic genre thrill ride — think the glib glossiness of Warners’ “Ocean’s Eleven” remake with the crackling Gallic atmosphere of MGM’s “Ronin” — “The Good Thief” stands to be a solid earner and equally active in ancillary.
Though key details differ, pic hews closely to the original’s plot structure. In a rundown Nice nightspot, the dissolute Bob (Nolte) meets 17-year-old Eastern European immigrant waitress Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze) while shooting up in the toilet. Moments later, he’s forced to save the life of longtime nemesis Roger (Tcheky Karyo), a cop ambushed by desperate Algerian drug dealer Said (Ouassini Embarek) under the nose of club owner Remi (Marc Lavoine). “I always swore I’d never share a needle,” Bob growls, jamming a fistful of syringes into the young tough.
After Remi gets rough with Anne, Bob moves her first into a hotel, then into his flat, the chief furnishings of which are a roulette wheel in the living room and a cherished Picasso in the bedroom. (Bob cites the painter as the best thief ever: “He stole from everybody.”) Anne’s obviously interested in the much older man, but he rebuffs her flirtations with growling grace. Subsequently, she and Bob’s young disciple Paulo (Said Taghmaoui) become lovers.
Meanwhile, with buddy Raoul (Gerard Darmon) in tow, Bob loses the last of his cash at the race track and finally approves Raoul’s long-cherished plan to rob a casino. Target is the Riviera, where copies of famous works of art by Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani and others loom over the clientele, with the originals stored a block or so away in an impregnable vault. Scheme sets up a bogus robbery of the casino safe, while a second team tunnels into the vault and boosts the pictures. All the while, Bob himself — everyone’s chief subject — will distract the management by working the tables, creating the perfect alibi.
Balance of pic follows the gang as they plan and execute the heists. Bob goes cold turkey by handcuffing himself to his bed and funds the operation by selling his Picasso to sweaty local fence Tony Angel (last-billed Ralph Fiennes, delivering a pungent cameo). The motley crew of recruits features eccentric computer whiz Vladimir (Sarajevo-born helmer Emir Kusturica), who installed the vault’s security system; transsexual and arachnaphobic weightlifter Philippa (British actress Sarah Bridges); and twin casino security guards Albert and Bertram (American directors Mark and Mike Polish), who Bob discovers have already dreamt up a heist scheme of their own.
Though pic’s paced a good deal faster than most of Jordan’s previous work, helmer still finds narrative room to explore his ongoing themes of honor, identity and faith among the fringe-dwellers. “The good thief,” Bob explains to Roger as they wander through a church, is the man hanging on the cross next to Jesus who repented just before his death. (Pic had originally been title “Double Down” to tie together blackjack strategy and the double robbery.)
The character of Bob has clearly energized Nolte, whose transformation from lowlife junkie to strutting high-roller is nothing less than extraordinary. Jordan and vet casting director Susie Figgis have surrounded the star with a galaxy of international character faces both old and new, each of whom contributes seamlessly to the ensemble. There’s a brief shot of Nolte, Darmon (the dapper bad guy in “Diva,” itself inspired by “Bob le flambeur”) and Kusturica in tight closeup that’s the human equivalent of a thousand miles of hard road.
Pic’s chief flaws are its valentines to the genre: the sheer amount of mumbling and growling renders more than a few lines unintelligible, while the last-reel twists come so thick and fast that they don’t bear up to scrutiny and will doubtless leave auds scratching their heads in confusion.
Tech package is aces. Oscar-winning d.p. Chris Menges and production designer Anthony Pratt combine to show Nice and Monte Carlo as a gaudy nocturnal playground of vice, whether among the cluttered back-alley clubs or the gambling salons of the swells. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is supplemented by a superbly chosen batch of fresh pop tunes, including Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” Johnny Hallyday’s French-lingo cover of “Black Is Black” and Bono’s treatment of the chestnut “That’s Life.”
Toronto lists pic as a U.K.-French-Irish collaboration, while lineup on print caught credits production chores to longtime Jordan producer Stephen Woolley, “The West Wing” creator John Wells and Canadian company Alliance Atlantis.