Note: In an effort to claim the title “blockbuster,” that is, $100 million earnings, The Italian Job is reopening wide this weekend, 29 August 2003.
Stella (Charlize Theron) is the only girl in The Italian Job. As it’s a remake of a 1969 Michael Caine heist picture, you’d think that her input would be minimal. But Stella brings surprising edge and occasional finesse to her by-the-numbers role (originally male), not to mention crucial elements to the plot, namely, safecracking skills, an earnest desire for vengeance, and a Mini Cooper.
Still, she’s up against it in this too-many-guys-vying-for-supporting-pizzazz picture. Stella is introduced right away, in a pose that underlines just how much she is The Girl. Her veteran safecracker father John (Donald Sutherland) calls her on his cell from Venice. She’s in bed, filtered light making her sleepy sexy underweared self look even gauzier. And yet, the moment complicates what it can mean to be The Girl. It turns out that dad has skipped parole and is about to embark on one last job, after which he promises to be straight. He smiles endearingly and promises to send her a present (“It’s shiny!”). But she knows, as you do, that as soon as John utters the words “last job” to his darling girl, that his fate (like the film’s) is sealed. Poor Stella hangs up and it’s all too clear what’s going to happen in the next few minutes: John will be dead and the movie will be headed down, way down, its generic path.
The Venice caper involves stealing $35 million in gold bullion. And as capers go, it does look splendid — some ornate architecture, St. Mark’s Square, some fancy cutting of floors and speeding of boats. John’s crew — all predictable types — includes his favorite student, master-planner Charlie (Mark Wahlberg); driver/womanizer Handsome Rob (Jason Statham); computer nerd Lyle (Seth Green); explosives expert Left Ear (Mos Def); and inside man Steve (Ed Norton). Though they get away with the gold, one of their number — Steve, whose grumpiness is evident from frame one — double-crosses the bunch, steals the gold, and shoots John dead in the process (Wahlberg’s efforts at crying over the body against an icy Austrian Alps background are, in a word, painful).
Steve also makes a concerted effort to kill the others, and leaves the scene believing that they have drowned, full of automatic weapons fire, in icy waters. They survive, instantly wracked with the thirst for retaliation. A year later, they locate their mark in Los Angeles, whereupon Charlie seeks out Stella, who’s working as a super-talented safecracker for the Philadelphia PD. While it appears that she’s gone into this line of work in order to get through her own very mixed up feelings about her mostly absent father (admiration, love, resentment, anger), she only needs a few reflective moments, artfully posed with that shiny necklace her father sent her before he died, to say yes to Charlie. They also appear destined for a romantic clinch, despite the fact that he’s just about the blandest fellow on the planet.
John’s death provides convenient motivation for the film’s most pressing point, the second, climactic heist, which does not take place in Italy, but, as Steve’s move dictates, in L.A. The guys, being professional, ask the appropriate questions concerning Stella’s investment in the job — maybe it’s a little too personal. Whoa, says Charlie, pointing out the obvious, they’re all out to get back at Steve. At this point it’s hard not to remember John’s sage advice to Charlie concerning their chosen profession: “There are two kinds of thieves: those who steal to enrich their lives and those who steal to define their lives.” Though Charlie knows he should be the former, he is pursuing the latter, because, maybe, his life has been redefined by the murder. This surely taps into some archetypal anxieties, but the plot machinations are so obvious that the emotional nuances become irrelevant.
The crew focuses on getting access to the bullion stored in Steve’s huge and monumentally guarded mansion. The film, for the most part, focuses on the hypertechnical hoo-ha: the surveillance equipment, the vehicles, the detonation sequences, and the computer hijinks (Lyle, for instance, claims repeatedly that he is the “real Napster,” and that Shawn Fanning [who has a cameo appearance in Lyle’s flashback] stole the software from him while he was “napping.”) These planning and playing with tech scenes are slick and conventional.
This last is underlined by Charlie’s predictable doggedness. Wahlberg can certainly do excellent work (Boogie Nights , Three Kings ), but his opportunities in a movie all about flashy mechanics are limited. Charlie’s stiffness is only highlighted by his simultaneously similarity and opposition to Steve, whose affect ranges from surly to surlier. (This may have something to do with reports that Norton took the part under duress, when Paramount exercised a contract option it had held since his breakout role in Primal Fear , threatening legal action if he refused.) Steve’s snarky meanness comes to a strangely distant climax when the film eventually comes to its end — a car “chase” in L.A. featuring a trio of tricked-out Mini Coopers careening along sidewalks, up and down subway stairs, and through subway tunnels. (In the 1969 version, the Mini Coopers, then equally cute and stylish, raced through the streets of Torino.) Steve, meanwhile, watches from an appropriately menacing black helicopter, such that most of Norton’s performance here is rendered as tedious reaction shots, as he mutters, “Hmmm, what are you up to, Charlie?”
As such silliness suggests, the primary conflict is between good son Charlie and bad son Steve. But Stella, the only crewmember whom Steve won’t recognize, has to spend some creepily uncomfortable time with him, pretending to be a cable repairperson. His flirtation with her is terribly inept, presumably to underline that ill-gotten gains have only made him more miserable than he was back in Italy. But it also makes for some compelling moments for Theron, who is otherwise as confined by those multiple driving-around-sharp-corners shots as any of her buddies (also disappointing is the groan-inducing scene where Stella has to crack a safe without her tools, but “by touch,” the way her dad did).
Here, former model Theron embodies a persuasive mix of vulnerability and anger, recalling some of her most beguilingly odd work, in 2 Days in the Valley (1996), Devil’s Advocate (1997), Mighty Joe Young (1998), and The Astronaut’s Wife (1999). If she hasn’t picked the most spectacular projects of late (Sweet November , Trapped ), Theron consistently brings a layered sensibility to her characters, part exposed, part perplexed, and part steely. A June 2003 Elle article, about “the toughest woman in Hollywood,” concentrates on her upcoming role in Monster, based on the life of Aileen Wuornos. Such focus points out the obvious, that The Italian Job is fundamentally less interesting than even the idea of Theron playing a serial killer. Still, in this mega-boys’ movie, Theron makes Stella sharper and more complicated than any of them.