When I heard about the premise of Nuns on the Run, I thought, ''Oh, no, not another movie about English comedians running around in women's clothes, shrieking.'' But Nuns isn't a madcap-hysterical, end-of-the-empire drag farce; it doesn't hash over what Monty Python did definitively over 20 years ago. It's a cleverly directed caper comedy about two crooks on the lam, and it has its fair share of chuckles.
The gimmick recalls that of the recent Sean Penn-Robert De Niro comedy, We're No Angels (only here, it hasn't been rendered in the high-realist style of an Andrew Wyeth tundra painting). Robbie Coltrane and former Pythonite Eric Idle are workaday London gangsters who steal a wad of cash from their boss and end up hiding out in a convent, disguised as nuns. Part of the joke is that it's almost plausible: The middle-aged nuns in the convent have been chaste for so long that, tucked inside their habits, with nothing exposed but their puffy, shapeless faces, they almost could be men. The two crooks blend in without any trouble.
The gags are pretty much what you'd expect. The men speak in exaggeratedly high and dainty voices, Idle has to fake his way through teaching catechism, and Coltrane can't stop wandering into the shower room to get a peek at the students from the adjoining Catholic college (who, in a liberal bit of casting, look like they just bounced in from a cheerleader-camp movie of the early 70's). What puts the routines over is that spirit of casual heartlessness the English can still do better than anyone.
Idle, who's starting to look like a funhouse-mirror reflection of Ted Koppel, uses his singsong delivery to hit notes of daffy, near-subliminal sarcasm. His character is so completely pragmatic so far from a believer that it's as if he had wandered into some strangely benign science-fiction world in which you could fool everyone simply by being nice. It's Coltrane, though, who steals the movie. Playing a lapsed Catholic who knows these nuns only too well, he turns his beady-eyed mug into a deadpan badge of sin he's the biggest, baddest altar by ever. B