Just when it seems as if Robert De Niro might have run out of tricks, he finds new ways to grip you. In The Score, a sturdily diverting old fashioned heist thriller that looks like a masterpiece of sheer competence next to the slovenly action fantasy F/X grab bags that have been passing for summer entertainment, De Niro plays a veteran safecracker named Nick Wells who exists in a state of such anonymous order and caution that he might be a fubsy middle aged English bank manager. Nick, an American, lives in the tranquil urban historical oasis of Montreal, where he owns and operates a seductively spacious jazz club. But that's his day job, his cover. He executes his audacious midnight burglaries outside of the city, working solo, mapping out every detail so that nothing can go wrong, then returning like a phantom.
The challenge of playing a control freak like Nick is that De Niro's own wary, taciturn spirit could just end up making the character seem dull. But his performance is a textbook instance of acting that plugs you into what it doesn't overtly show. Nick's caution, his watchful radar armor, is a kind of quiet mania, and De Niro, evoking James Caan's brooding nihilistic cat burglar in ''Thief,'' draws you right to the center of what Nick is guarding against: not just getting caught but losing his edge on the world. When he goes into his top secret tool shop to plan a job (it's a veritable minihardware store hidden behind a hairdressing salon), he could almost be a criminal superhero ditching his innocuous, ordinary guy alter ego.
As a movie, ''The Score'' is a lot like Nick: smart, tense, clever, and methodical. It doesn't exactly reinvent the clichés of the heist genre (in fact, it embraces nearly every one of them), but then, this is the sort of movie you enjoy exactly because of its gadgety obsessiveness and deft clockwork design, its nearly ritualized suspense. The terrific opening scene, in which Nick, in the middle of a score, neatly outwits disaster, sets the movie's tone: plotting and precision locked in a duel with the ongoing threat of chaos. ''The Score'' offers the pleasure of seeing a master plan flawlessly executed as well as the equal and opposite pleasure of watching that plan go up in smoke.
Nick takes his robbery assignments from Max, his longtime fence and comrade, played by a twinkly, less flaky than usual Marlon Brando, who appears to be doing an underworld cross between Truman Capote and a very lordly elf. It's Max's idea to set up Nick with Jackie Teller (Edward Norton), a brilliant and arrogant young thief who has infiltrated Montreal's Customs House by going to work there under the alias of a twitching, mentally challenged night shift janitor. The film gets away with this amusingly tasteless stunt only because Norton, in a variation on his debut in ''Primal Fear,'' does it with such skilled gusto; he makes it seem not a gimmick but a virtuoso ruse. Nick, whose ground rule is that he won't steal in Montreal, is coerced into breaking that rule in order to team up with Jackie the upstart brat. They're out to filch a 17th century French scepter worth $30 million that's being held in the Customs House. Nick's rationalization: It will be the big one -- his Last Score.
Frank Oz, directing his first thriller after comedies like ''What About Bob?'' and ''Bowfinger,'' makes the planning and execution of the heist a satisfyingly breathless game of deception, brimming with the sort of state of the art technological fetishism (video monitor fakeouts, an ingeniously employed minibomb) that ''Thief'' made standard 20 years ago. There are also hokey contemporary touches like a sweaty, manic, mother fixated hacker who might as well be named ''Bates'' Tarantino. The heart of ''The Score,'' however, is the fast and hostile interplay between De Niro and Norton, both ruthless in their intelligence but with vividly contrasting moods.
Is Jackie, whose preppy imperiousness veers off into recklessness, a sociopath, or does he just pretend to be one for the fun of it? And is Nick the working stiff thief really such a straight arrow, or does he privately dig the thrill of the action? Jackie and Nick are partners, rivals, and enemies all at the same time, and ''The Score,'' in the tradition of every heist film from ''Rififi'' to ''The Killing'' to ''Sexy Beast,'' makes the aftermath of the robbery the true test of character. The picture is hardly as intricate as those other films, or as original, but in a season starved for honest flair, it'll do.