BY ERIC HEINING
In The Good Thief, director Neil Jordan’s jazzy remake of the classic French caper film Bob Le Flambeur, Nick Nolte inhabits the title role as if he were meant for it. Nolte plays Bob, a vice-addled former crook who might be the most gentlemanly drug addict in all of Nice, and it is nearly impossible to observe an early scene of him injecting heroin without it conjuring an image of last September’s mug shot of a drooling and bewildered Nolte shortly after his arrest on charges of driving under the influence of GHB.
Nolte’s Bob is an allegedly reformed burglar who has exchanged larceny and forgery for roulette and smack, and now spends most of his time slumped over the casino tables of the French Riviera working at losing his shirt. The film follows what happens when Bob, intoxicated by the idea of pulling off an improbable theft of expensive paintings, is persuaded by his former crew to come out of retirement for one last job. Like its predecessor, Mr. Jordan’s film has the familiar structure of a traditional heist picture. The primary focus this time around, however, is on the titular thief and the unlikely bonds he forms with a hapless police detective and a teen hooker, among others. The movie presents such a rich and nuanced study of these characters and their interactions that viewers might find themselves relatively unconcerned with the many twists and turns of the convoluted plot. I will not divulge any major secrets, but will simply say that the movie works on the level of a genre flick at least as well as other recent entries The Score and The Heist.
What sets The Good Thief apart from this crowd – and what is truly remarkable about Nolte’s performance here – is the manner in which he effortlessly breathes life into a complex and ultimately likable character by (presumably) channeling the same impulses that ran the actor afoul of the law in the first place. His Bob is a gruff, urbane train wreck of a man. He is a hopeless gambler and thief whose penchant for self-destruction is matched only by his love of fine art, or at least by his love of stealing it. Yet Bob’s first two actions, done high, are entirely selfless.
Early on in the film we see Bob save the life of a local cop, Roger (Tcheky Karyo), during a botched arrest attempt. Later that same night Bob staggers into Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a young Eastern European prostitute with a blackened eye, and frees her from a sticky situation by goading her pimp into a fight and then deftly lifting her passport from the man’s pocket in the ensuing struggle. When Anne tries to repay Bob’s kindness in the only way she knows how, he politely refuses her advances and instead provides money for food and a place to sleep. Bob performs these virtuous acts as instinctively as he depresses the plunger on one of his hypodermic needles, and Nolte effectively shows us how naturally his character’s shortcomings complement those of the others around him and gradually develop into a co-dependence containing elements of genuine human concern. As time passes and these relationships grow, we see that Roger is both Bob’s most dogged pursuer and closest friend, and that the girl just might turn out to be his Lady Luck.
The film’s dialogue, written by Jordan, is frequently witty and sharp. It is strong enough that it is a real disappointment that some of the lines as spoken are very hard to understand. This is perhaps due partly to the varied accents of a multinational cast, but some of the trouble must surely be attributed to Mr. Nolte’s croaking voice and his casual delivery. He has told reporters that he used some heroin each day on the set in order to get into character, which could help to account for some of the inaudible grumbling. His Bob tells Anne at one point that dope and gambling do not mix well. It seems unlikely, then, that Nolte was using during the film’s breathless final sequence, in which he remains utterly composed as the pair risk it all and play to the limit at a high-stakes Monaco casino.
Nolte is hardly the only recent celebrity actor to suffer from the limelight’s tendency to magnify one’s missteps. No doubt a brilliant ensemble cast could be formed entirely of film stars who have faced legal troubles during the past twelve months. To an uncommon extent, though, Nolte has discovered how to divert his more peccant impulses toward his best work. It is tough to imagine another profession that would permit such fertile ground for his own brand of sublimation.