Our review of The Italian Job (1969), published November 3rd, 2003, is also available.
Get in. Get out. Get even.
We should've guessed when the new BMW-manufactured Mini Cooper hit the market in 2002 that a remake of The Italian Job couldn't be far behind.
Facts of the Case
Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg) and his team of expert criminals succeed in ripping off $35 million in gold bars in an elaborate heist in Venice, Italy. During the getaway, though, the thieves are betrayed by one of their own, Steve (Edward Norton), who, after gunning down Croker's mentor, surrogate father, and skilled safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland), believes he's sent the others to a watery grave.
Back in Los Angeles, Charlie decides to steal the gold back from Steve. He reassembles the old team, including computer geek Lyle (Seth Green), demolition expert Left Ear (Mos Def), and getaway man Handsome Rob (Jason Statham). Needing a safecracker to replace Bridger, Charlie approaches the old man's daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), who's taken the skills daddy taught her into the legitimate world of safe and vault consulting. The allure of revenge proves too tempting, of course, and Stella agrees to participate in this one heist.
Cued in on his former cohorts' survival, Steve decides to abscond with the gold but our lovable cons make things difficult by hacking into L.A.'s traffic control system and creating a nightmare on the streets. A classic game of one-upmanship ensues as Croker and Steve vie to outsmart each other and make off with the riches. Naturally, it's all capped off with a kinetic chase sequence in Mini Coopers through L.A.'s streets, sidewalks, malls, reservoirs, and Metro tunnels.
Dare I say it? The Italian Job is less a remake of the original cult classic than a re-imagining. And I mean that in the best possible way. Screenwriters Donna and Wayne Powers (Deep Blue Sea) took the characters of Croker and Bridger, a heist set in Italy, and the climactic set-piece involving Mini Coopers from the original and crafted an entirely new film. It was a smart move because there's little chance a straight remake would have lived up to that other Italian job, the one that went down in 1969. It's particularly clever that the film begins with the heist in Italy, then moves to L.A. for the bulk of the action. When Wahlberg's Croker realizes Mini Coopers are the key to hauling the stolen gold out of Steve's mansion, he says it'll be "just like the Italian job," but is he talking about their original heist or the film starring Michael Caine? Ultimately, though, the success of this remake isn't because it carefully distances itself from the original, but because it, too, is a damned good time.
It's much harder to make a good heist film in 2003 than it was in 1969 if only because so many have been made in the intervening years, both good and bad, and the formula is so well-worn it's often a bit too familiar. While this new The Italian Job caters to modern action tastes by packing its running time with dynamic set-pieces, director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Negotiator) does something extraordinary: he fills the movie with heartfelt character moments. I'm not talking about the sort of gushing one associates with look-I'm-acting Oscar clips, but genuine interaction between actors that is bred of Gray giving them room to breathe, to play off of one another. Scenes between Wahlberg and Sutherland at the beginning of the film communicate warmth and affection, drawing us into the characters' lives and story and making us care when Sutherland meets his fate, a development that drives the rest of the film. Theron and Norton have a couple great scenes together; so do Green and Statham. And none of these pieces of acting struggles against the film's plot demands or the narrow sensibilities of the actioner. They're all fully integrated into the whole. It's a simple thing, really: the actors are listening to one another and responding to each other's performances. Simple, yes, but all too rare in a film that features loads of fast cars and explosions.
In terms of action, much of The Italian Job's allure comes from the complete absence of computer-generated special effects. CGI has a place in modern special effects, but it shows up far too often these days in stunts better done the old-fashioned way. CGI here would have been the equivalent of hiring Ray Harryhausen to do the effects in the original: when it comes to high-speed car chases and harrowing ramp jumps, nothing beats real cars, real roads, real ramps, and human stunt drivers. The Italian Job offers action aplenty and you'll never wonder to yourself, "How did they do that?," because you'll never think about the stunts; you'll be absorbed by them, instead. Isn't that how it should be?
Whether or not you like The Italian Job is going to depend on whether or not you like the heist film formula (the head thief rounds up group of thieves with specific and highly-technical areas of expertise; an incredibly baroque heist scheme is hatched requiring the sort of up-front investment in technology that makes one wonder why the thieves would want or need to rob anyone in the first place; the heist goes down with unforseen twists and turns stretching the characters to the limits of their expertise but, in the end, the lovable criminals escape with the loot). This film fits squarely within the bounds of that formula, but manages to do so with enough charm and intelligence that it makes for a wonderful time, assuming you're willing to grant it a little suspension of disbelief.
Paramount brings The Italian Job to DVD in a single-disc Special Collector's Edition that's nowhere near as impressive, overall, as the DVD for the 1969 version (released the same day). The film is available in separate widescreen and full screen editions, but we'll pretend it's not. This review is based on the widescreen edition, and that's the only one we care about. The transfer is anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1, with a clean, sharp image that sports accurately rendered colors and almost no signs of edge enhancement. Fine detail is completely stable, blacks are solid, and shadows are rendered with much subtlety.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is less than it should be. While it's clean, it's also uneven. The dialogue is mixed at a lower volume than it should be, and the score is less than expansive, sitting mainly in the front soundstage. As a result, when kinetic moments come, they're jarringly loud compared to the rest of the mix. All in all, it's not a horrible track but it could and should be better.
It's in the supplemental material where this disc suffers in comparison to the release of the 1969 version of The Italian Job. All that's offered here is a handful of featurettes, some deleted scenes, and a trailer. Pedal to the Metal is the primary making-of featurette, but it runs only 18 minutes and is pure electronic press kit material, consisting mostly of cast and crew praising each profusely. The three remaining featurettes run between five and seven minutes each and provide fluff information about the writing of the script, the new Mini Cooper, and the film's stunts. None of it is bad, but it's not particularly interesting, either.
Five of the six deleted scenes are brief moments removed from the climactic Mini Cooper chase. The remaining scene features Charlize Theron on a date with a sexist lawyer so over-the-top obnoxious it'll make you thankful they left it on the cutting room floor.
If you enjoy a fun heist flick, The Italian Job is for you.
If you're a fan of the original, your reaction to this remake is going to depend on your point-of-view. Gone are the unique British sensibilities at the heart of the Michael Caine classic. This is a modern American action film in every way. I'd argue that's a good thing: Hollywood was never going to successfully recreate the magic of the original. They were wise not to try.
F. Gary Gray and his cast and crew have made a blast of a flick. Give it a chance.
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Scales of Justice
• Pedal to the Metal: The Making of The Italian Job
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