The South of France has rarely looked so grim and inviting as it does in Neil Jordan’s new film, The Good Thief. As such, it reflects the sorry state of Bob Montagnet (Nick Nolte), an American expatriate, heroin addict, and sometime gambler who, as the film opens, is feeling especially sad and wasted. But, just as he appears to have given himself over to illusion and destitution, he’s jolted by the appearance of the stunning, 17-year-old Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze).
A newcomer to the Riviera, she’s making her way on the street as a prostitute, canny enough to know this isn’t what she wants to do, but broke and dazzled enough to think it’s what she needs to do. She spots Bob shooting up in the bathroom and judges, “You’re too old to do that.” He peers up through his bloodshot eyes, sees her black eye, and decides not only that she’s “too young” to be doing what she’s doing, but also that he will save her, thus giving himself a mission and a route to some sort of movieish redemption.
In order to manage her rescue, Bob needs to clean himself up (this granting a slightly less than conventional detox scene, where he’s tied his bed and providing a hallucinatory perspective on his room). He most admires Picasso, he says, because that cat was “the best thief who ever lived.” Bob, by contrast, is a “good thief,” in more ways than one. When Anne offers him sex, thinking that his effort on her behalf means he wants something specific in return, Bob, to his credit (and the film’s) says no thank you. His interests are more complicated and more astute; and The Good Thief is less concerned with standard caper movie dynamics (where the primary guy gets with the girl), and more with a fanciful mosaic of illusion, loyalty, and thievery.
Based on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur (1955), Jordan’s film doubles all stakes of the original, and more elaborately, of the remaking process (this includes the satisfyingly confusing appearance of two guards, played by U.S. filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish). As is usual in such reluctant hero setups (for example, Casablanca or, more recently, The Transporter), Bob’s loyalest supporter is a local cop, Roger (Tchéky Karyo), who observes not only Bob’s repeated bad choices, but also his occasional moral merits. Though they respect one another, they also realize (and more or less accept) that they’ll never fully understand one another. The puzzling is enough.
Mostly eluding Roger’s watchful eye, Bob puts together a crack team — including Raoul (Gérard Darmon), resourceful scammer Paulo (Saïd Taghmaoui), and security systems expert Vladimir (Bosnian director Emir Kusturica) — in order to rob a casino, but not in any obvious way; the intricacies of the plot, and the diverse crew might recall the antics of, say, Ocean’s Eleven, but Jordan’s film is less enamored of itself and more willing to take risks, with its characters’ faltering as well as their wholly entertaining cunning.
Bob takes up an elaborate scheme, which involves pretending to steal fake paintings while really stealing real ones, all the while leaving much of the scheme to luck, as a gambler must, of course. This capacity for giving over control is what most endears Bob, to all those who watch him — Roger, Anne, his compatriots and his enemies, and of course, the rest of us. The watching is made exceedingly pleasurable by Chris Menges’ brilliant cinematography, simultaneously fresh, gritty, and resplendent, hardly an easy combination.
Most intriguing is the subtle relationship between Bob and Anne. For all its many deceptions and illusions, The Good Thief allows this to develop as if in a real world, where genuine affection and appreciation grant generosity rather than competition or arrogance. Bob sees in Anne a younger version of himself — ambitious, vital, thrilled by surfaces. This “vision” indicates Bob’s self-knowledge, his consciousness of own limits and considerable gifts. He can see that, as seductive and glorious as the surfaces (art, casinos, pretty little street scenes) may be, his salvation lies in himself, in another form. And the film’s smartest conceit, its most exciting insight, lies exactly here — that Bob and Anne can infatuate and delight one another as self-aware self-reflections.