In a performance that's staggeringly good, Nick Nolte, whose voice is so guttural that subtitles would not have been unwelcome, plays a magnificent mess of a man, a burn-out whose rough lifestyle -- he's fond of both heroin and gambling, two habits that yield minimal returns -- never once tempers the joie de vivre spirit that informs his every move. When he's warned after placing a foolhardy bet that if he loses he'll be penniless, he quips with the barest trace of a smile, "Then I'll have hit rock-bottom. I'll have to change my ways."
It might have been an empty statement when uttered, but Bob does change his ways -- at least some of them. When an acquaintance proposes that they knock off a casino -- not the money in the vaults, but the valuable paintings on the walls -- Bob handcuffs himself to his bed, kicks the heroin habit, and begins planning the heist. Yet whether he realizes it or not, the robbery isn't the only factor contributing to his turnaround -- as is often the case, there's also the love of a young woman, in this case a 17-year-old Russian immigrant (Nutsa Kukhianidze) who Bob saves from a life of prostitution. Despite her efforts, their relationship is purely platonic, with Bob casting himself as a father figure (or at least a chaste gentleman caller) rather than her lecherous Svengali.
Of course, The Good Thief wouldn't carry on the tradition of the classic heist flicks if there weren't complications. Perhaps having seen many of these films himself, Bob tries to plan ahead to counter any potential obstacles, and he largely succeeds. He's usually one step ahead of the kindly police inspector (Tcheky Karyo) who likes Bob and doesn't want to see him screw up (Bob keeps insisting that he's gone straight and that his life now revolves around AA meetings). And knowing that criminal activities often go wrong because of the machinations of a Judas in the midst, he even picks out his own Judas and tries to steer him in the wrong direction. But what Bob doesn't know is that, in varying degrees, no less than four people assume the Judas mantle, and it's this shortsightedness on his part that may prove to be his undoing.
The twist ending is nice, though I'm still not convinced that everything falls into place from a narrative standpoint. Yet ultimately, this is a heist movie that's more interested in exploring its players than in impressing (or annoying) the audience with its cleverness, and therein lies its appeal.
The part of the teenage waif is hardly revolutionary, yet I was intrigued by the matter-of-fact directness that Kukhianidze brings to the role. Here's a street-smart teen who doesn't see herself as a victim but instead as someone who always has to figure out all the angles in order to survive without compromising her own rules (Bob's young partner eventually becomes her boyfriend, and it's a measure of her stubborn mental makeup that she's unable to say, "I love you" even though he could theoretically throw her out on the street).
Tcheky Karyo ranks up there with Gerard Depardieu as France's most soulful actor, and here, as in The Core and The Patriot, he's warm and inviting, the sort of guy born to listen to other people's troubles. The relationship between his cop and Nolte's crook -- casual, sympathetic, and brotherly -- is a pure movie invention that goes as far back as the 1930s (has any cop-crook tandem ever been this chummy in real life?), yet it's one we never seem to grow tired of. Their scenes together are especially pleasing.
The smaller roles are aptly cast, with Jordan's End of the Affair star Ralph Fiennes making a cameo appearance as a sinister art dealer and director Emir Kusturica (whose Underground just played in the Charlotte Film Society series) popping up as one of Bob's crew. Yet it's Nolte who dominates every frame of The Good Thief. Making the most of the rich character that Jordan has written for him -- I especially love the way Bob embellishes whatever tale from his past that happens to cross his mind, finally leading his cop pal to state, "That's the fourth version of that story I've heard!" -- the actor nails the character so expertly that one can't help but wonder if he's using these weathered late-career parts (Afterglow, Affliction and now this) to purge some real-life demons. After all, much has been made about Nolte's off-screen travails (arrests, addictions, etc.), yet if throwing himself into his profession is one of the ways that this remarkable talent can come clean, so much the better. All work and no play might make Jack a dull boy, but such a rigorous schedule may be just the prescription Nick requires.