Proponents of the studios' recent penchant for remakes of beloved pics have strong defense in "The Italian Job." Not only is this new "Job" a generally better movie than the satisfying 1969 caper starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward, it moves through the paces with a light, confident grace very much its own. Director F. Gary Gray's production, and writing team Donna and Wayne Powers' script, succeed with a complete overhaul of the original from the chassis up. The forthcoming line of high-octane summer entertainments will be hard-pressed to top this one for both thrills and wit, and repeat business points to a long-running hit for Paramount, with cherry vid life down the road.

Proponents of the studios’ recent penchant for remakes of beloved pics have strong defense in “The Italian Job.” Not only is this new “Job” a generally better movie than the satisfying 1969 caper starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward, it moves through the paces with a light, confident grace very much its own. Director F. Gary Gray’s production, and writing team Donna and Wayne Powers’ script, succeed with a complete overhaul of the original from the chassis up. The forthcoming line of high-octane summer entertainments will be hard-pressed to top this one for both thrills and wit, and repeat business points to a long-running hit for Paramount, with cherry vid life down the road.

Unlike many recent remakes, this one doesn’t suffer from an air of desperate hipness — the visible creative sweat that comes from moviemakers working overtime to please a younger crowd. Rather, it has a cool sleekness associated with the best caper and Euro thrillers — the most recent comparable being the equally good if much darker “The Bourne Identity” (also similarly troubled by negative, pre-release rumors). A likeable ensemble that shows Mark Wahlberg in much better form than his previous Continental misadventure, “The Truth About Charlie,” helps “Job” considerably.

Fans of the genre will draw numerous connections to other films, and that becomes part of the fun. As it did two summers ago with “The Score,” Paramount has released a finely-tuned heist pic, and as in that thriller, Edward Norton plays a thief with a hidden agenda. Wahlberg as Charlie is mastermind of the crew, and cinephiles will get a kick out of seeing Donald Sutherland as John, the group’s wise old master safecracker, back in his Venice, Italy “Don’t Look Now” haunts.

First reel features larceny and some scuba gear, as the crew manages to steal $35 million worth of gold bullion out of a villa. With pic’s theatrical trailer already giving away far too much of the twisty-turny plot, it’s hardly revealing to note that Norton’s Steve, seemingly a key part of the gang, double-crosses them in the Italian Dolemites, kills John and thinks he’s left the rest for dead.

A year later in Philadelphia, John’s daughter Stella (Charlize Theron), who has turned dad’s safecracking skills to legal use as a security consultant, is approached by Charlie, after he’s heard that Steve is now in L.A. trying to discreetly fence the gold bars. Both Charlie and Stella have their own reasons for revenge, even though Stella partially blames Charlie for dad’s death.

Perhaps too quickly, but not inconceivably, Stella puts aside her hesitation about stealing the gold back from Steve and joins Charlie’s merry band, already shown in action earlier, but now formally introduced: Handsome Rob (Jason Statham) is the ace driver and a major league Lothario; Left Ear (Mos Def), with a hearing impairment, does munitions; and Lyle (Seth Green) the all-essential computer genius, is a class clown who claims to bethe inventor of Napster.

From here on, “The Italian Job” nicely balances genre basics with refreshing angles on the set-up and execution of the caper at hand (this time in L.A.), punctuated with an unexpected sense of humor. The storytelling never stews over anything for too long, so that when Rob questions Stella’s ability to carry her weight, or when Charlie and Stella have to work out their personal problems, they’re dealt with succinctly.

In tribute to the original pic, the Mini Cooper car, famously used in the first “Job” by Caine’s Brit crew to flee both Mafia and cops through the streets of Turin, is given high profile.In fact, the car is so brazenly presented it’s hard not to read some sequences as product placements.

At first, Steve doesn’t see what’s coming , even when Stella poses as a cable TV service rep to spy on his palatial home, which contains the safe. Best-laid plans go awry, though, on a dinner date Steve sets up with Stella. Still, Charlie, ever the improviser, takes advantage of the fact Steve — now seeing the crew is alive and after his booty — is fleeing to Mexico. The race is on, turning L.A. (replacing Turin) into a giant parking lot for a spectacularly staged sequence that moves from Hollywood to Downtown, including much tasty action in the subway tunnels.

The only real letdown is a flat conclusion, in contrast to the earlier pic’s terrific open-ended cliffhanger.

Norton shows signs of over-familiarity with the role of the devious bad guy, but in no way does this always interesting actor phone in his performance. Making small steps toward greater star confidence, Wahlberg nicely assumes the posture of benevolent thief, setting a grown-up but jocular tone that extends to the rest of the charismatic team. Theron adds layers of interest to Stella’s character, and the movie allows her to get close to Steve without the usual bogus bed scene. In support, Green’s measured turn as the funnyman is by far his best to date, and Sutherland leaves a lasting impression.

Much credit for the way pic goes down so smoothly must go to the editing team of Richard Francis-Bruce and Christopher Rouse, while lenser Wally Pfister and designer Charles Wood lend a classy touch. Gary Hymes’ stunt work is a blast and a half, and John Powell keeps a good, low profile in the music department.

The Italian Job

Production

A Paramount release of a De Line Pictures production. Produced by Donald De Line. Executive producers, James R. Dyer, Wendy Japhet, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Screenplay, Donna Powers, Wayne Powers, based on the film written by Troy Kennedy Martin.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Wally Pfister; editors, Richard Francis-Bruce, Christopher Rouse; music, John Powell; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson, Julianne Jordan; production designer, Charles Wood; art directors, Doug Meerdink, Mark Zuelzke; set designers, Timothy M. Earls, James Bayliss, Greg Papalia, Hugo Santiago; set decorator, Denise Pizzini; costume designer, Mark Bridges; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Douglas B. Arnold; supervising sound editor, Mark Stoeckinger; visual effects, Digital Domain, Gray Matter FX, Frantic Films, Black Box Digital, Digitalia Graphics, Digital Film Works, Flash Film Works, Pacific Title; visual effects supervisor, Bruce Jones; special effects coordinator, Joe Ramsey; associate producer, Lynsey Shmukler Jones; stunt coordinator, Gary Hymes; assistant director, Doug Metzger; second unit directors, Alexander Witt, Ken Bates; second unit camera, Josh Bleibtreu; casting, Sheila Jaffe. Reviewed at the Bruin Theater, L.A., May 22, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Charlie Croker - Mark Wahlberg Stella Bridger - Charlize Theron Steve - Edward Norton Lyle - Seth Green Handsome Rob - Jason Statham Left Ear - Mos Def Wrench - Franky G John Bridger - Donald Sutherland Skinny Pete - Gawtti Mashkov - Olek Krupa

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