Gold standard

The Italian Job

Former Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch frontman Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Croker, the criminal mastermind originally portrayed by the non-mookish Michael Caine in the 1969 version of <i>The Italian Job</i>.

Former Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch frontman Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Croker, the criminal mastermind originally portrayed by the non-mookish Michael Caine in the 1969 version of The Italian Job.

Rated 4.0

The Italian Job is the latest in a spate of remakes that have come along lately. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit right off that this is one case in which I haven’t seen the original (from 1969, starring Michael Caine, Noel Coward and Benny Hill). Maybe if I had, I’d have reacted differently to the new version, but I don’t think so. Even someone who hasn’t seen Charade can tell that The Truth About Charlie stinks; and you don’t have to see the 1979 version of The In-Laws to realize that the 2003 version is something of a misfire. Yes, even if I had seen the earlier version of The Italian Job, I think I still would have enjoyed this new one just as much as I did.

From what I’ve heard, it seems the two movies have little in common besides the title and the plot points of a gold-bullion heist and a staged traffic jam. In this one, Mark Wahlberg plays Charlie Croker, the mastermind of a robbery of $35 million in gold bars from a vault in Venice, Italy. The rest of his team consists of safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland), computer nerd Lyle (Seth Green), demolition man Left Ear (Mos Def; the character’s name comes from the one ear he’s not deaf in) and getaway driver Handsome Rob (Jason Statham). Then there’s Steve Frezelli (Edward Norton), whose exact function in the caper isn’t clear—but the point becomes moot when Steve double-crosses the others, by stealing the gold and leaving them all for dead.

It takes Charlie a year, but he finally tracks Steve to Los Angeles, where Steve is living under an assumed name and fencing the gold a bar or two at a time. Assembling the survivors of the old team and recruiting Bridger’s daughter Stella (Charlize Theron), Charlie launches a plot to get even. The Italian Job is directed by F. Gary Gray, and it took me a while to place the name. Gray also directed the recent Vin Diesel cop drama, a grimy, cheap-looking mess. It’s hard to believe the same man directed the gleaming, snappy The Italian Job—in fact, it’s hard to believe they were made on the same planet. Gray may be the kind of director who’s helpless against a bad script but can rise to the challenge of a good one.

And the script here (by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Donna Powers and Wayne Powers, from the original screenplay by Troy Kennedy-Martin) is a very good one: The plot is satisfyingly complicated without resorting to outlandish “surprise” twists, and the dialogue is crisp without being arch or self-conscious. The script seems to energize both Gray and his actors—especially Wahlberg, who carries himself here with self-possessed confidence (and this so soon after slinking through the abysmal The Truth About Charlie like a gate-crasher with an impostor complex).

The film is book-ended with two bravura action set-pieces: a speedboat chase through the canals of Venice that follows the opening heist, and a protracted, climactic chase through rush-hour Los Angeles that involves (don’t ask how; you just have to see it) Austin Mini Coopers, armored cars, motorcycles, a helicopter, a subway train and an assortment of innocent by-drivers. Gray imbues these scenes with almost voluptuous pleasure; there’s a wit and buoyancy to the action scenes in The Italian Job (one stunt involving an armored car is simultaneously astonishing and hilarious) that complements the friendly banter among the conspirators and the menacing repartee between Charlie and Steve. There’s no change of tone when the film moves back and forth between the dialogue scenes and the action, and one doesn’t seem to be interrupting the other.

This seamlessness is the surest sign of a good director, and if I faulted Gray before, it’s only fair to give credit where it’s due now. Nobody will ever mistake The Italian Job for a work of art, but its craftsmanship is exhilarating and unmistakable. It’s slick, quick, high-spirited, light on its feet, cool-headed and smooth.