Proving nowhere near as smooth or light-fingered as the handsome jewel thief at its center, “Cool Money” is a fact-based heist movie that plays far too nice with its characters — specifically, a benign career criminal and family man who pulls off a dizzying string of New York hotel robberies. Latest installment of USA Network’s True Crime series makes a tepid showcase for the charismatic James Marsters, returning to TV for the first time since sucking up fans as virile vampire Spike on “Buffy” and “Angel.”
Marsters’ new part isn’t supernatural — he’s just a natural, a gifted con artist named, appropriately, Bobby Comfort. Bobby has been a thief since he was 6, but he’s also, get this, a nice guy, with a quicksilver ability to foster trust and even sympathy within the people he dupes, swindles and temporarily takes hostage.
That comes in handy from the outset, when Bobby breaks out of jail and, cleverly exploiting a legal loophole in court, manages to talk his way out of re-imprisonment. Returning home to Miami to wife Stephanie (Robin Brule), daughter Amy (Kaylin Hart) and a boring hospital job that his annoying cousin Phil (Jason Schombing) finds for him, Bobby is desperate to get back to his life of lifting diamonds, only this time on a much grander and more larcenous scale.
Enter the flamboyantly crooked Sammy Nalo (John Cassini), who’s like a less sociopathic, better-dressed version of Joe Pesci in “GoodFellas.” Setting their sights on the upscale celebrity hotels of Rochester, N.Y., Bobby, Sammy and older partner Doc (Wayne Robson) begin a succession of armed raids on the guests’ security boxes.
In an age when the average heist sequence is crammed with all manner of misdirection, elaborate blueprints and laser-driven gadgetry, this gang’s blunt, tie-’em-up-and-gag-’em tactics register as almost charmingly low-tech — and, as a result, more than a little dull.
Bobby is likable enough and certainly easy to root for — maybe too easy, as the script has a habit of placing moral and emotional obstacles in his path and then clearing them away before any tension can build.
That goes for the weak-willed Stephanie, who wants her husband to stay clean but turns curiously supportive once he uses his “earnings” to buy her a gorgeous suburban house; and for Bobby’s blowsy mother, Peggy, played by Margot Kidder with an engaging sense of mischief that never goes beyond comic relief.
Only Schombing gets under Bobby’s skin as the meddlesome Phil, a frustrated cop who tails him relentlessly while paying a shade too much attention to his wife and daughter.
Sporting a sandy-colored buzz cut in place of the striking peroxide-blond coiffure he made famous on “Buffy,” Marsters has been literally de-Spiked, not to mention defanged, for the occasion. Fortunately, the actor is more than equal to the challenge of a new look; he’s completely convincing as a surface charmer, though he’s ill served by the character’s general passivity and lack of anything even remotely resembling an edge.
If nothing else, “Cool Money” is refreshingly uncynical and, aside from a few freeze-frames accompanied by the obligatory wry voiceover, absent the flashy, overstylized nihilism of most contempo crime pics. The final half-hour, which culminates in Bobby’s robbery of the Pierre Hotel and the largest jewel heist in American history, aims for a playfully amoral finish that feels at odds with the overall blandness preceding it.
Opening credits sequence, with its retro animated visuals and droll score, directly mimics the sublime intro to Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can,” and for good reason — the famously slippery Frank Abegnale Jr. is probably Bobby Comfort’s closest real-life parallel. The comparisons end there; pic has neither Spielberg’s buoyant sense of fun nor, in the end, a fraction of his cool.