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THE ITALIAN JOB 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. Still, it beats this new version, which retained the title but not much else. Instead of the offbeat casting of the original's Michael Caine, Noel Coward and Benny Hill, we now get the more conventional, Hollywood-glam teaming of Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron, with Wahlberg cast as the leader of a high-tech criminal gang, Norton playing the member who betrays the team, and Theron as the daughter of Wahlberg's late mentor (Donald Sutherland), now seeking revenge against Norton for killing her dad. Beyond some good performances from the supporting players (Mos Def, Jason Statham, Seth Green), this ho-hum heist flick 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. The word is that the studio forced Norton to make this film against his will, as part of a studio contract he was obligated to honor; such a mandatory arrangement 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.
SPIDER Despite a title that suggests David Cronenberg might be back to his icky ways (this is, after all, the man who gave us a bloodsucking armpit in Rabid and exploding heads in Scanners), Spider actually turns out to be one of the most subtle pictures the Canadian filmmaker has ever made. Working from Patrick McGrath's novel, Cronenberg spins a psychological tale about a mentally disturbed man (Ralph Fiennes) who, having just been released from an insane asylum, sets up residence in a halfway house run by an unfeeling landlady (Lynn Redgrave). Immediately, he becomes lost in the tangled memories of his youth, agonizing over a past in which he witnessed his loutish father (Gabriel Byrne) neglecting his demure mother (Miranda Richardson) in order to pursue the town tart (also played by Richardson). There's a twist ending that's absurdly easy to figure out almost from the start, so it's best not to approach this as a conventional drama but rather as a knotty character study about a warped individual so traumatized by his inability as a youth to get a grip on his burgeoning sexuality (the Oedipal complex and Madonna/whore syndrome both come into play) that he's never able to reconcile his own tainted memories with the reality of his childhood. As the muttering, fidgety protagonist, Fiennes delivers an extraordinary performance that, above all else, is surprisingly sympathetic.
2 FAST 2 FURIOUS Never rising much above the level of a mediocrity, the 2001 sleeper smash The Fast and the Furious at least had two things going for it: the magnetic presence of co-star Vin Diesel and plenty of spectacular stunt work involving car races, car chases and car crashes. But with Diesel deciding to commit himself to other projects (namely, follow-ups to Pitch Black and XXX), this sequel's appeal is immediately cut in half -- and it's reduced even more by the fact that the car sequences don't match the visceral impact of the first film's auto focus. Whereas 1 Fast 1 Furious centered on illegal street racing, part deux relies on that standard plotline known to B-movie aficionados worldwide: the efforts of an undercover cop to... yawn... infiltrate a crime kingpin's inner circle and expose his corrupt ways. Returning star Paul Walker remains as dull as ever, but he's no worse than his co-stars: the hammy Tyrese as his best friend and the wooden Eva Mendes as a fellow undercover operative who may have switched allegiances. Director John Singleton once earned an Oscar nod for Boyz N The Hood but has now been reduced to this drivel. Still, let's not be too hard on him -- after all, John Boorman made Exorcist II: The Heretic a few short years after Deliverance and still managed to work his way up again. 1/2