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Heist remake botches the Job

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The 1969 version of The Italian Job is a minor cult classic, which isn't the same thing as saying it's a particularly good movie. Worshipped in its native England (and sporting a good number of fans stateside as well), this caper film is actually only so-so, bolstered primarily by a typically cool performance from lead Michael Caine, a rare chance to see Benny Hill on the big screen (not much of a stretch, though, as he plays an eccentric chap who leers at women with large behinds), and a wonderful what-the-hell? ending that leaves audiences dangling right alongside its main characters.

The 2003 version of The Italian Job may bear the same title, but except for the nationality of one supporting character, it's about as British as Gone With the Wind. This one's pure Hollywood hokum, with American movie stars, an American setting (Los Angeles, with only the first scene actually taking place in Italy), and a total unwillingness to take any narrative chances (hence, the original's ambiguous ending has been replaced with a happily-ever-after fadeout). The result isn't necessarily bad, but I can't imagine it will satisfy anyone who's sat through even one heist flick during their lifetime.

There was no double-cross in the '69 model, yet scripters Donna Powers and Wayne Powers have made that the driving force in their updated version. Career criminal John Bridger (Donald Sutherland), on the verge of retirement after the proverbial "one last job," has handed the reins over to his young protege Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), who successfully orchestrates the theft of a large quantity of gold bars from a safe in Venice. But it turns out that one of the members of their team, inside man Steve Frezelli (Edward Norton), has his own ideas: He takes all the gold for himself, kills Bridger, and leaves the rest of the gang for dead. Instead, they all survive, and after teaming up with Bridger's no-nonsense daughter (Charlize Theron), they set out to steal the gold back -- and exact a little revenge while they're at it.

Charlie's group is made up of the usual mix -- cool British guy (Jason Statham), cool black guy (Mos Def), nerdy computer geek (Seth Green) -- but the fact that they're played by competent actors and not the usual interchangable unknowns gives the film a little more personality than it might otherwise have been able to muster. Beyond the performers, though, The Italian Job lacks color and flavor -- it's completely bereft of the attention to atmosphere, dialogue and characterization that distinguished another recent caper yarn, Neil Jordan's superior The Good Thief. For action buffs, there are plenty of chase scenes, but they're not especially exciting -- and coming after the spectacular one that climaxes The Matrix Reloaded, they seem all the more puny.

The word on the Net and in movie magazines is that Paramount Pictures forced Edward Norton to make this film against his will, as part of a studio contract he was obligated to honor; that would certainly explain the actor's dull and detached performance. But here's the good news: Just because Norton was forced to make the film doesn't mean you're forced to watch it.

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