Career thief Nick Wells (DeNiro) is about to mastermind a nearly impossible theft that will require joining forces with a clever young accomplice (Norton). The unlikely alliance, masterminded by long time friend and fence Max (Brando) interrupts Nick’s plan to retire from crime and settle down with his fiancée, Diane (Bassett). Worse, it requires Nick to violate his most important rule: always work alone.
During the first half of the motion picture industry’s lifespan, moviemakers always had their thieves eventually busted, or at least unsuccessful in their nefarious acts, finding either retribution or redemption. The trend switched some thirty years ago when audience members aligned with the infamous “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The more modern crime capers have at least one bandit getting away with the stolen money, jewels, etc. While I will not give away the ending, the film definitely has the audience routing for the crooks, hoping they escape the long arm of the law. What’s the message being sent when rogues become the victors and those robbed are of no consequence? True, it was fun seeing Newman and Redford swindle a big-time hood in “The Sting,” but now every crime-of-the-century film has us rooting for the perpetrators. Does this desensitizing trend add to society’s amorality? Here we have a techno heist that couldn’t have been better thought out by the Mission Impossible team. Armed with an all-knowing computer and heist-helping gadgets that can foul up security cameras and blow through any vault, the victims have no hope against our “heroes.” If they want what you have, its gonna be theirs. The technical qualities are all first rate and director Frank Oz, notable for the Muppet movies and lightweight comedies such as “Spies Like Us” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” proves he has the cinematic ingenuity of delivering a taut, suspenseful actioneer. And DeNiro, Brando and Norton are such pros that we in the audience can’t help but be sucked into the story. But the film is so impersonal. We never really get to know the characters or what motivates them. Aloofness and mystery can be characteristic devices, but here they are just signs of lazy writing. And poor Angela Bassett is little more than decoration. She is a consummate actress, who was nominated for her portrayal of Tina Turner. But this is a guy film, so this very talented woman, here playing a stewardess and DeNiro’s love interest, does little but drop by for a session of implied love making before boarding her next flight. While we traditionalists are struggling against a new morality that suggests right is wrong and wrong is right, here is a film that has the viewer anxious that the crooks might be apprehended. And once again, a filmmaker has trouble telling a story without incorporating the F-word into nearly every sentence. I exaggerate, but there are 45 uses of that word alone. “But Phil, that’s how these guys would talk” Not necessarily. The lead characters are very intelligent men, capable of disrupting even the most sophisticated of security systems. They have taste, wealth and a flair for life. I’m convinced that actors with a limited vocabulary or those who obviously had little acquaintance with a high school English class need to rely on that word to communicate anger, frustration, and nearly every other emotion. “What are you saying, Boatwright, that DeNiro and Brando have limited vocabularies?” I admit they are exceptions to the rule. But it has been my experience that most actors are at their best when aided by a screenwriter. And most of the recent batch of screenwriters can only develop a rough-hewn character with the use of obscene or profane dialogue. This disparaging accusation may seem hollow coming from a writer who is often grammatically and structurally inadequate, himself. But at least I make use of a thesaurus upon occasion. I see little evidence that today’s generously paid “artistes” bother with such things.