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October 1, 2014

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Scene Selection — Geoff Carter: ‘Italian Job’ is only a part-time effort

Geoff Carter is a Seattle based free-lance film critic and entertainment writer. Reach him at [email protected]

I'm a complete sucker for heist movies. I love seeing characters huddled around blueprints, a woman in a cocktail dress stealing a passkey from a drunken security guard, car chases, lock-picking, synchronized watches. If "Citizen Kane" had a heist scene, I'd watch it every day.

That said, I don't think I'll come back to F. Gary Gray's remake of the classic Michael Caine heist picture, "The Italian Job" (Paramount DVD, $29.99) as often as I return to Kane's Xanadu. It's not that it's a bad film -- it's an enjoyable romp, as the critics say. But it is lopsided.

Take Mark Wahlberg's Charlie Croker, a role assayed by Caine in the original film. As he was in "The Truth About Charlie" -- a pointless remake of Stanley Donen's "Charade" -- Wahlberg is miscast as a smooth-talker. His character is earnest, workmanlike -- not qualities one would associate with an international thief.

His supporting cast, however, is spot-on: Jason Statham as con man Handsome Rob, Mos Def as demolitions man Left Ear, Seth Green as tech geek Lyle, Charlize Theron as safecracker Stella Bridger and Donald Sutherland as John, Stella's father and Charlie's father figure.

"I play Wahlberg's father," chuckles Sutherland in one of the DVD's documentary extras. "I've just done (a movie) in which I play Nicole Kidman's father. If I could have changed all the diapers of these people, I'd be a happy man."

And he's as good as his word -- Sutherland is happier and looks more robust than he has in any of his recent films. Even Edward Norton, whose work on the film was reportedly delivered under protest, seems more comfortable in his work than Wahlberg. Wahlberg's quiet, almost Zen-like thief is the linchpin of the robbery and the story, and it would have been fun to see him rise above a conversational tone at least once.

But he doesn't, and as a result, "The Italian Job" never quite connects as the truly great heist movies do. Wahlberg is only on board to deliver exposition, and having done so, he draws back and lets his costars steal every scene in which he appears.

The script is also a bit soft. I have no problems with a story that can be explained in a single sentence (Gang steals gold, man betrays gang, gang gets even), but screenwriters Donna and Wayne Powers set up a half-dozen detours that go nowhere interesting. (In a documentary extra, the screenwriters admit to only having watched the original film once, and only after they'd gotten the job. What thief worth his salt only checks the blueprints once?)

Now, you can't make a heist movie without having at least one bona fide cool thing, and similar to its predecessor, "The Italian Job" has three: a trio of Mini Coopers, which the gang uses to good advantage in the heist. These small, boxy cars handle like startled cats.

Not since the glory days of "Herbie the Love Bug" has a car threatened to steal a movie from its celebrity driver, but the Minis come close. Watching the cars tear through a gridlocked Los Angeles -- on sidewalks, even through the subway tunnel -- is the biggest rush "The Italian Job" has to offer.

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