THE GOOD THIEF is a cheeky little film that uses the excuse of a complicated caper to do a character study. Writer/director Neil Jordan, who adapted this from the 1955 French classic, BOB LE FLANEUR, uses smoke, mirrors, and a sleight of hand to keep things interesting, a magic that is certainly more adept than that demonstrated by the policemen who keeps doing things like pulling coins out of peoples ears instead of paying attention to the goings-on there in sunny Nice.
There in the bright Mediterranean sun, we find Bob Montana, an ex-thief and current gambler and heroin junkie who is desperately trying to hit bottom so that he can start on the long road back up. After losing his last 70,000 francs, hes more than happy to entertain a complicated plan proposed by his pal Raoul (Gerard Darmon) to hit a Japanese-owned casino in Monte Carlo. The twist is that they arent going to go for the cash, theyre going to steal the paintings on the wall, bright and cheery little canvases by Picasso, Mondrian and the like. Theres a twist, of course, and then another, and before this ride is done, you wont be sure quite where youve ended up, perhaps at the beginning, perhaps not. Never mind. Its the motley crew of big-hearted misfits that make this film work, along with Jordans stylized direction that does the stop-action trick a few too many times.
At the center of that is Bob himself and his best pal and friendly nemesis, Roger (Tcheky Karyo), the local constable. They have that strange kind of relationship that comes of an easy familiarity and a genuine liking the one for the other. When Roger wrecks his car in yet another futile effort to tail Bob, Bob backs up, calls a tow truck, and then gives the cop a lift into town. Its all done without an ounce of condescension or a flicker of smart-ass cutesiness.
Roger knows somethings up and wants to save Bob from himself by employing the town snitch to find out the particulars so that he can stop Bob before its too late. The problem here is that everyone knows the town snitch for what he is, and so the fun comes from Bob playing the snitch against Roger. Its not the only playing, theres also director Emir Kustarica as the Russian Hendrix-worshipping techno-whiz with the inside scoop on the casinos security system because he installed it, Paolo, Bobs amenuensis who is a fool for love, and an odd pair of twins (played by the filmmaking Polish Brothers) who have plans of their own that may or may not get in Bobs way.
Along the way, Bob takes Anne, under his wing, a Bosnian 17-year-old whos being pimped out, possibly against her will. Her age plays into his fixation on prime numbers and her vulnerable toughness in the face of nightly beatings brings out the knight in shining armor lurking beneath his rumpled clothes and hair. In the person of Nick Nolte, were talking serious rumpled here, and his usual shambling demeanor is used to perfect advantage playing as he does a guy with a lot of baggage to go with that monkey on his back. And yet theres a inappropriate twinkle in his eye zest to his world-weariness that makes his Bob irresistible.
As Anne, Nutsa Kukhiandze, has the right mix of waifishness and cold-eyed cynicism. This is a woman whos put aside any ideas of romance, if she ever had them, and with steely resolve has accepted herself as a sexual commodity in lifes marketplace. At one point she indulges in a bit of metaphysical musing, wondering if shes so in demand because shes made of gold and maybe she should melt herself down, the better to give out pieces of herself, since everyone wants a bit of her, but not the whole package.
Jordan, like Bob, never quite lets us know everything thats going on. We get bits and pieces, just enough to let us make sense, sort of, of the action. Like Bobs ever-changing story about his familial origins, the truth onscreen is only valid until the next version comes along. He also paces things at a leisurely lope, the better to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the witty repartee that fills the script. THE GOOD THIEF is a pleasant enough way to spend the almost two hours of its running time. For Jordan, its as close to whimsy as were ever likely to get.