Scene stealer

Movie: The Good Thief

Our Rating: 4.00

There's a wonderful story -- possibly apocryphal -- in which a reporter asks Tom Wolfe how he creates such vivid characters. "Tell the reader what they're wearing," Wolfe is said to have quipped.

In other words, characters need not always be "complex," as long as they're outfitted for maximum archetypal appeal. It's a secret writer/director Neil ("The Crying Game") Jordan tumbles to joyously in "The Good Thief," a breezy lark of high-velocity, Hawks-ian banter; crisscrossing plots; and luscious Nice, France locales.

Jean-Pierre Melville's "Bob Le Flambeur," on which Jordan's film is based, was a sleek take on angsty American noir. "The Good Thief" speeds up the proceedings, adding a fun-but-never-smirking layer of candied hipness to keep our eyes and ears occupied.

Taking a page from his own life's headlines, star Nick Nolte comes on like a heroin-chic chunk of barely animated Claymation as Bob Montagnet, a likable ex-ace-thief turned tottering underworld junkie. (Throughout the film, addiction and the essence of 12-step recovery are toyed with and reconstructed -- to funny, ultimately sweet effect.) But Bob's no maudlin doper nostalgist.

"Remember the '80s?" a friend asks him. "Nope," he drawls. Aside from a morphing back story about his French mom, that's all we learn about Bob -- and all we need, really.

Bob bottoms out and meets Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a glibly damaged teen hooker. Admiring her pluck, he saves her from a scumbag pimp and takes a platonic shine to her. Meanwhile his patience (faith?) is finally rewarded. He learns of a top casino made vulnerable by iffy security technology, comes up with an ingenious plan to rob it of its priceless artwork and kicks heroin. He puts together an off-center string for his caper, including a young transgendered person, a biracial hothead, and a techie who demonstrates alarm software while plucking out Hendrix on a vintage Stratocaster. The whole wonderfully overplotted affair climaxes with a breathless, 30-minute-long caper and a denouement that surprises but doesn't cheat.

Strip away the zippy, caper-story gloss and "The Good Thief" is really about the interdependence of marginalized opposites, and the moral conundrums suggested by the film's title. And so we have another -- no, the best -- of Jordan's valentines to outsider archetypes besmirched by eccentric dreams of beauty and transcendence from a glamorized but fatal low-life milieu. And for a crime movie, it's remarkably restrained. The only person who gets shot in "The Good Thief" is a louse (a realist, to boot) who snitches on Bob's crew. We're happy to see him go.

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