The Italian Job (Paramount) embodies everything that many of us have come to despise in Hollywood movies, especially the ones that open between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It's a remake, of a tolerable but insignificant 1969 English caper comedy: Why bother? It features heroes who specialize in grand larceny: We're supposed to root for them because they're prettier and nicer than the other thieves, although they'd steal from us just as casually as their mean, ugly counterparts would. (They wouldn't shoot us, maybe.) It's another formula revenge melodrama, too: One crook double-crosses a bunch of other crooks, and for the next 90 minutes it's payback time. And if you're sick of product placements—and whenever I see a strategically angled product in a movie, I make a note to avoid buying it—you'll be disgusted to know that this is basically a full-length car commercial for the MINI Cooper, which gets to elude much bigger cars plus a swooping helicopter. The Italian Job is a pandering, debased, generic little nothing of a movie. And I'm still trying to figure out why I loved it so inordinately.
One reason is that after The Matrix Reloaded's ugly sets and long, shapeless chase scenes, it feels terrific to be back in a mini—in all senses. Directed by F. Gary Gray, this is a snazzy piece of filmmaking: fluid but wittily syncopated; stylish without appearing to expend undue effort. It opens with a credit sequence that gives you horizontal and vertical slats of Venice mixed with maps of the canals—and with a rare wacka-wacka score (by John Powell) that manages to be both noisy and harmonically exciting. The opening heist involves a manse above the water, a safe of gold bullion, a speed boat, and a bunch of other elements I won't spoil. As a kid I endured week after week of that TV barbiturate Mission: Impossible because I liked watching teams of crack techies snap things into place while staring anxiously at the second hands of their watches. This is the same kind of thing but smarter and faster than any Mission: Impossible episode (or movie, for that matter). Gray made a splash in 1996 with Set It Off, a surprisingly probing bank-heist picture starring four African-American actresses. You could tell from Set It Off and The Negotiator (1998) that Gray loves pure action, but he loves pure acting just as much.
Gray's cast here is headed by Mark Wahlberg, who doesn't always bring a lot to the party but has a plodding sweetness that's very appealing. As Charlie Croker, he has a gentle rapport with Donald Sutherland as his fatherly mentor, and his locked-in quality works nicely opposite Charlize Theron, who plays Sutherland's straight-arrow daughter: She's one of the rare goddessy model types with a down-to-earth and playful personality. Wahlberg's team includes Mos Def as the explosives whiz with the significant moniker "Left Ear"; the smooth Cockney Jason Statham as "Handsome Rob," the guy who drives the cars and distracts the birds; and Seth Green as a computer genius who wants to be called "Napster" because he claims he invented the technology, which was swiped from him while he napped. Gray lets Green do a couple of comic improvs that almost made me forgive the actor for pricing himself out of the Buffy finale. In fact, the whole cast appears unusually relaxed and inventive for such a formula picture.
The double-crossing snake is played by Edward Norton, who reportedly had to appear in the film because of a legal obligation to Paramount. Norton uglies himself up: He wears a wormy little mustache and slits his tiny eyes instead of trying to make them button-cute. (When he first crept onto the screen, I thought he was Bruno Kirby.) But he's in better form slumming than he was working hard in last year's Red Dragon. When Croker and company cut the line on his TV/computer cable, he gives a look of enraged entitlement that's one of the funniest things I've ever seen him do. (It resembles my own look of enraged entitlement whenever the cable goes out.) Chalk up another point for the old repressive studio system!
The joke of the original The Italian Job had a barbed, chauvinist edge: It celebrated the orderly Brits taking advantage of the disorderly Italians. This one needn't have kept the title: The efficient screenplay (by Donna Powers and Wayne Powers) has no cross-cultural underpinnings, and the setting here is mainly Los Angeles. The real point of connection is those MINI Coopers. The original started a rage for them, and the remake gave even a non-car guy like me a hankering to carry one off: As a harried urban driver, I loved the way the MINI slid neatly into itty-bitty parking spaces while still managing to accommodate the endless legs of Charlize Theron (sold separately).
I know this contradicts my professed stand on product tie-ins. But car commercials and films and TV shows have been feeding on one another for decades now. (Frankly, one of the best things I saw at the movies last year was that Volkswagen commercial with the bored corporate guy doing the same old thing on multiple screens until he witnesses the coming of the VW bug convertible—whereupon the Beatles-ish ELO soundtrack swells with hosannas out of a Bach cantata.) And during the ravishingly well-shot and edited climactic chase—which features red, white, and blue MINIs scooting around L.A.while Green's Napster gives the good guys green lights and the bad guys reds—the cars make for a hilarious visual non sequitur. Scurrying along those fat L.A. freeways and darting onto sidewalks and zipping up the walls of huge drainage tunnels, they're like hobbit-mobiles. Except they're not a digital effect. It's a sad commentary when a basically synthetic product like The Italian Job feels more real than anything else in the multiplex.