Heist dramas are fashionable again. David Mamet has his own upcoming drama
aptly titled "Heist." Ben Kingsley's riveting performance in the film "Sexy
Beast" also involves a heist. Now, director Frank Oz ("Bowfinger") and three
major stars, Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando, combine their
strengths to create their own caper flick. "The Score" is a thrilling
character study, depending more on specifics related to the heist than with
character. Still, it is as relaxing and comforting a film as you are likely
to see in a mindless, mind-boggling summer.
De Niro stars as Nick, a Montreal jazz club owner who masquerades as an
efficient burglar. Nick is one of the best in the business, usually
performing jobs for others in places outside of what he refers to as his own
backyard. He has a stunning girlfriend (Angela Bassett), an airline
stewardess, who visits him infrequently ("I'll see yah when I see yah.")
Everything is in place for Nick but he looks like he is ready to quit too.
That is until a shady, Sydney Greenstreet character named Max (Marlon
Brando), an old friend of Nick's, offers Nick one big job in their own
backyard. It turns out that the Montreal Customs House has a rare, 17th
century French scepter in the basement, its value higher than Brando's last
paycheck. The scepter is so valuable that it is placed under strict
surveillance, namely video cameras and an invisible laser display. There is
also a little snag and an inconvenience for Nick: Max has hired a cocky,
seemingly sociopathic thief named Jackie Teller (Edward Norton) to help
infiltrate the Customs House. It turns out Jackie works at the Customs House
as a janitor named Brian, mimicking and fooling the employees into believing
he is mentally challenged. He is in place already, it only takes Nick to
perform the actual heist with Jackie's help.
Needless to say, "The Score" fits the description of any heist thriller since
the days of the Production Code. How many heist thrillers have had the same
basic premise? How many have dealt with a character like Nick who sees this
score as his last job, for good and ever? How many involve a virtually silent
climax where the thief performs his sweat-inducing work amidst false alarms?
The difference is in all the details, and there are enough to entertain and
jolt audiences out of their seats.
De Niro is one of my favorite actors, ranging from explosive portrayals of
sinful men in "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" to comedic highlights of
minimalistic strength in "Wag the Dog" and "Meet the Parents." Lately, he has
been saddled with mediocre fare such as "Fifteen Minutes" but what can you
say about a man of his stature to keep himself from repeating past roles?
Well, Nick is not unlike the ice-cold killer thief De Niro played in "Heat."
This time, though, De Niro brings a world-weariness sense to the role and one
can't help but feel that Nick enjoys his job as well - he is in command and
refuses to take orders except from his boss.
Edward Norton continues to impress me. Here he seems like an extension of the
duality he prominently displayed in "Primal Fear" and "The Fight Club." It is
a frightening performance in the sense that his character Jackie seems
explosive yet reserved at the same time, willing to listen to Nick yet just
as ready to rebel from the old-timers. His cockiness and energy are, in
effect, part of his own undoing. How can Jackie feel superior to thieves who
have far more experience than he ever will?
Marlon Brando is a whole other matter. Brando seems intent on doing riffs of
Sydney Greenstreet and the resemblance is amazing not to mention intentional.
But there is that glee and weariness he brings that fills the screen with
delight. His scene with De Niro is wonderful to watch, but not quite as
potent as say the unique pairing of De Niro and Pacino in "Heat." Still,
watching Brando mingle with De Niro and Norton is a pleasure to behold. And
Brando's scene at an empty pool where he confesses to De Niro the truth
behind the heist is exquisite.
Director Frank Oz is a strange choice for this kind of material since his
background is in the comedy genre. Still, he proves to be a master of tension
and suspense in some notable scenes, particularly the heist itself which is
among the most electrifying since "Topkapi." It is so good that my palms were
sweaty while watching it. It is on par with the climactic underwater heist in
Oz's work with these acting giants also proves to be superlative (Despite
rumors to the contrary, Brando seems effortless on screen thanks to Oz, even
if he didn't want to be directed by Miss Piggy). One misguided exception in
the casting is the underwritten role of Angela Bassett as Nick's girlfriend -
a character that exists merely as a reason for Nick to quit. Only Bassett is
too strong a presence for such a throwaway role - either eliminate the role
or hire Halle Berry, for goodness sakes'! There is strong evidence that her
role had been severely cut which is a shame since it would have shed some
light on Nick's priorities in life.
"The Score" is as pleasant and diverting a surprise as one can expect. It is
absolutely nothing new but the acting, script and the heist climax makes it
more than worthwile. It is not as character-driven as "Sexy Beast" or Michael
Mann's powerful "Thief," nor as wire-tight as Kubrick's fast-paced "The
Killing." Nevertheless, it is still watchable, tense and sweat-inducing as
any good heist thriller should be. Unless you believe that all films should
have digitally created characters, nothing beats a score like three diamonds
in the rough - De Niro, Brando and Norton.
Copyright © 2001 Jerry Saravia