“Righteous Thieves” ends with its protagonists having a wee festival of self-congratulation, sipping champagne as they promise themselves — and perhaps threaten viewers — they’ll have more adventures like the one that’s just wrapped. Their delight is not infectious, because this dopey caper’s prior 90 minutes have been rather like hoisting a flute of promised champers only to taste flat Fresca.
Director Anthony Nardolillo and writer Michael Corcoran’s film strikes a pose of sly ingeniousness throughout that is uncorroborated by any actual cleverness, surprise, wit, tension, thrills or much else you’d hope for in a high-end-heist tale. The “righteous” part — that our heroes are reclaiming artworks stolen by Nazis long ago — feels no less superficial than everything else in this uninspired genre piece. Lionsgate opens it in seven U.S. theatrical markets March 10, simultaneous with digital and on demand release.
Brief prologues set in 1943 and 1985 establish background for Annabel (Lisa Vidal) as CEO of a mysterious organization otherwise comprised of elderly Jewish men — one of their late brethren once “saved” her from a life of youthful criminality. That Holocaust-surviving mentor “believed he could heal the world of all its pain through art, and he wanted to give back all the beauty that was stolen by Nazis,” she explains.
Thus her latest mission for the group is regaining four priceless paintings (by Monet, Degas, Picasso and Van Gogh) that have been missing since World War 2, but are now known to be in the possession of German venture capitalist Otto Huizen (Brian Cousins). As if that weren’t bad enough, he is also “trying to create a neo-Nazi Fourth Reich,” consorts with Russian oligarchs and says things like (re: returning the artwork) “Ze verld is nut verthy uv zem” in an accent right out of “Springtime for Hitler.”
An action movie that has virtually no action for nearly an hour, “Thieves” instead occupies itself with Annabel assembling a team to penetrate Otto’s heavily guarded fortress — located, conveniently, right there in Los Angeles. With herself as mastermind, the others drafted are 2nd Lt. Eddie (Carlos Miranda), hacker Lucille (Jaina Lee Ortiz), safecracker Nadia (Sasha Merci) and strongarm Bruno (Cam Gigandet).
These people are supposed to be brilliant good guys adept at skirting the law. But we only know that because we keep being told as much, and because the actors are instructed to smirk through constant lame demonstrations of one-upmanship. Corcoran’s screenplay doesn’t provide them the repartee or intricacy of insider knowledge to impress, and they panic and/or yell at each other at the drop of a hat. This is the crème de la crème? They don’t even vet newcomer Bruno enough to anticipate that macho blowhard’s likely betrayal. So instead of formidable geniuses, this “crew” tends to come off as over-coiffed soap opera actors posturing like they’re in some series-pilot mashup of “Mission: Impossible” and “Ocean’s 11.”
When we finally get to the break-in, that doesn’t provide significant excitement either, as there are no notable twists or complications — just a standard array of skirmishes between the protagonists and various security goons, with adequate if uninspired fight choreography.
Nardolillo (of boxing tale “7th & Union,” salsa-dance drama “Shine”) and company do deserve credit for attempting this kind of glossy caper on relatively modest means. Stylistically at least, the film makes a fair stab at rising to the sophisticated escapist level aimed for. But that’s entirely a matter of passably sleek costuming, locations and cinematography, not to mention bombastically overenthusiastic soundtrack selections trying to force-inject adrenalin into lackluster proceedings.
Those surface elements can’t disguise the script’s often groan-worthy dialogue, one-dimensional characters the cast can’t do much with or a lack of the cunning plot turns such intrigues require. Whenever Vidal’s eyes moisten at the thought of Nazi death camps or the sight of a great painting, that knee-jerk attempt at depth only underlines that this medium-shiny package has precious little content, and far too little plausibility to go dragging in real-world tragedies.