Nick Nolte, at 62, has a face that’s past leathery. It’s like a crumbly piece of parchment, a road map on which the valleys of sin threaten to blot out the rest of the landscape. That hellion mug, with its furrows and hollows, is creased by far too much living, and so is Nolte’s voice, a low and lilting whiskey rasp that doesn’t speak the words so much as singsong them into bitter mush, like Tom Waits without the piano chords.
In Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief, Nolte plays a professional burglar and gambler named Bob Montagnet who also happens to be an unapologetic heroin addict. Bob, an American living in Nice, is the complete gutter romantic. We know this because Nolte gets to growl out a lot of existential film-noir pensées such as ”Always play the game to the limit – damn the consequences!” At the beginning, the camera prowls a strip joint, the dank bar bathed in a sexy smear of blue and pink neon, and Nolte, stirring up trouble at the backroom card table, commands authority. At the same time, he has done this weary, ravaged-nobility routine once too often, and the dialogue is so self-conscious that watching his performance is a bit like biting into an egg that’s been hard-boiled…twice.
Jordan has taken ”Bob le Flambeur,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s satiny little French safecracking thriller from 1955, and remade it by frosting it with so much underworld atmosphere and ”character” that the heist is now effectively in the background. Bob may be killing himself with junk, but he’s still a chivalrous old dog. It doesn’t take him long to become the protector of Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a slinky Russian teenage gamine with a Dorothy Hamill haircut and an attitude of ironic precocity that’s not nearly as charming as it’s meant to be. It’s partly to help Anne that Bob handcuffs himself to his bed, kicks his junk habit, and goes in for one last score: lifting 20 priceless paintings from a Monte Carlo casino the night before the Grand Prix. How will he do it? By pretending to rob the money vault.
”The Good Thief” is a movie rife with extravagant gestures. Bob’s hands-off attitude toward Anne is a rerun of the chaste mentor relationships in Jordan’s far richer ”The Crying Game” and ”Mona Lisa,” and Bob tells the tale of how he won the Picasso painting on his garret wall by betting Pablo himself on a bullfight in 1969. To bankroll the robbery, he’ll even sell that prize painting – damn the consequences!
The trouble with all this is that it’s thin movie tinsel that, while lovingly polished, never becomes more than tinsel. ”The Good Thief” has a glib stylishness (the rapid freeze-frames at the end of scenes signify…nothing), yet it lacks a blast of reality to balance its fable. Bob’s crew of multiculti lackeys is weirdly colorless, and the heist has been staged with such random informality that it’s less clever than baffling; it never generates the devious clockwork pleasures of a movie like Soderbergh’s ”Ocean’s Eleven” or the original ”Bob le Flambeur.” Jordan may think that he’s transcending the genre, but there’s got to be more to a haunted romantic dream than Nick Nolte’s aura of honorable wreckage.