by Ray Pride

A man with a gun takes your wallet and runs into a nearby alley. Not much of a story, you have to admit. A man with a gun and a plan, unreliable collaborators, stylish clothes, a terrible temper and an underworld lifestyle dependent on an artfully crafted idea of cities and pursuit and escape? You're getting there.

Heist movies are one of the hardest of genre styles to pull off. Which is why it's usually scary to hear the announcement of a remake like The Italian Job, requisitioning the contours of a likable if convoluted 1969 English Michael Caine vehicle with some pretty terrific chase scenes.

But, against the odds, The Italian Job is that rare remake that does justice to the modest charms of its predecessor while working in a contemporary style. It also doesn't hurt that it's a remake of an imperfect movie. Director F. Gary Gray is onto something much as Doug Liman was with The Bourne Identity: Instead of exuding the callous cool of 1990s hits, the characters are sincere, just short of earnestness. It partakes of an earlier, more European sense of gangster cool.

Whether through characterization or casting, there are a handful of questions that make movies like this work. Are we sympathetic to who robs whom? Is justice served, and how brutally? It's easy to make a bad heist film. For example, it's easy to admire the almost Martian weirdness of David Mamet's House of Games, with almost no recognizable human psychology or behavior, his fascination with the bare mechanics of cons does him in when it comes to a convoluted movie like The Heist.

Michael Mann may be the director who pushes the idea of cool to almost pretentious levels. In his painfully stylish 1981 film, Thief, the details of the robberies are told with an almost clinical precision while threats of obscene violence against a family make us root for James Caan's bad guy. In his epic, 1995's Heat, which Sight & amp; Sound editor Nick James has memorably called a "slippery behemoth," Mann again uses the heist as a backdrop for an examination of gangland ethics, threatened masculinity and the city at night.

But for a larger audience, The Italian Job will be the summer's unexpected lark, as concerned with the fun of the faces and the lure of the game as the history of genre. How pretentious could you get with the director of Set It Off and a cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Seth Green, Jason Statham and Mos Def? Edward Norton, reportedly cast to redeem his contract with Paramount for his debut, Primal Fear, is good, but less-than-fresh as a twisty bad guy much like a couple he's played before.

Gray, unlike Jonathan Demme in his Wahlberg-starring The Truth about Charlie (another caper remake), understands what makes that admittedly limited actor attractive and appealing, and uses his combination of ugly-prettiness, naivet & eacute; and street wariness to useful effect. As shot by Wally Pfister, cinematographer of Memento and Insomnia, Gray's direction makes The Italian Job a sleeker, slicker version of the lighter-than-air intrigues of Ocean's 11.

While the commercials and word-of-mouth will focus on chases with the newly reminted Mini Cooper cars, there's also homage to the greats of the genre, such as The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi and the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. Jules Dassin claims he didn't see John Huston's 1950 classic until after making Rififi. Another director working in France, Jean-Pierre Melville, who idolized that film and Huston, was scheduled to make Rififi, and when Dassin made it, he went on to Bob le Flambeur, or, Bob the Gambler, which covers similar ground. In Melville's epic swan song, 1970's The Red Circle (which will be issued as a Criterion DVD in a few months) you can also recognize some of the same formal and moral concerns. Melville said that The Red Circle incorporates all 19 facets of the heist film, a list which, unhelpfully, he took to the grave. But Gray's work, on the streets of L.A. and even inside its gleaming new subway tunnels, tick off a few basics that have worked for 50 years.

In a movie like The Italian Job, honoring its cinematic forebears, things like charm and betrayal, cool places and cooler toys add layers to the game. But the elegance of the heist genre comes down to one sustained element: Process. A description of actions, baroquely detailed and showing theft to be a job requiring intense cleverness and innovation. Kind of like making a mass-audience movie: it's only work.

Publication date: 05/29/03

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