Sometimes, a movie comes along that changes the way you think about the world. The Italian Job is not that movie, alas, but it may be something even more rare and valuable ' a genre movie that manages to keep us entertained from beginning to end. Billing itself as a "contemporary update" (as opposed to a historical update?) of the 1969 heist flick starring Michael Caine, The Italian Job retains, from the original, only the title and the MINIs, a matching set of red, white and blue cars that look like those things a dozen clowns climb out of. In the original, which was British, the MINIs signified the Union Jack. Here, they signify Old Glory. Once again, we've inherited the British empire's dirty work.
Okay, we've stolen ' make that "bought the rights to" ' their dirty work. The job in question is the removal from a Venetian palazzo of $35 million worth of gold bullion, followed by a speedboat chase through the canals, gondoliers scattering like confetti. Heist movies are ultimately judged on the quality of their heists, and this one is satisfyingly smooth, everything going according to plan, but with a switcheroo that fooled me, anyway. Then the crew, whom we've barely gotten to know, gets a surprise of its own when Edward Norton, whose weaselly mustache should have been a dead giveaway, suddenly announces that $35 million divides by one a lot better than it divides by six.
The other five are: Mark Wahlberg, the brains of the operation; Seth Green, the computer genius; Jason Statham, the wheel man; Mos Def, the explosives expert; and Charlize Theron, who, in addition to being stunningly beautiful, knows a thing or two about cracking safes. Yes, but will she figure out the combination to Wahlberg's heart? That The Italian Job doesn't spend a lot of time on that question is one of its many virtues. Quite simply, it has a job to do ' an American job, it turns out, Norton having holed up in a Hollywood mansion with his gold bricks and guard dogs. How do you surprise a guy who knows you're coming for him? That's a question the movie does spend a lot of time on, and it's time well spent.
Surprisingly light on its feet, The Italian Job doesn't take itself too seriously ' more Ocean's Eleven than The Dirty Dozen. And some might find the lack of tension a fault; it sure seems like these guys are going to get away with it. But I rather liked the movie's playful tone, the sense of a job well done. Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator) has never shown such casual mastery before, gliding through the floors of that palazzo like a cat burglar. He's been ably assisted by Donna and Wayne Powers' script, which provides the blueprint, and by John Powell's score, which provides reinforcement when reinforcement is needed. Every heist movie is itself a heist, making a play for our attention and affection. This one goes without a hitch.