1969’s The Italian Job, a slick caper movie starring Michael Caine as a lady-killing, too-smart Brit with bad teeth, opens with Caine driving through the winding Italian countryside in a prototypical ’60s film opening-credit sequence. The 2003 remake, starring Mark Wahlberg in Caine’s role of Charlie Croker, opens with an old man calling his daughter on a cell phone from Venice. Just about the only thing the two films have in common is their centerpiece of pulling off a heist with a trio of well-promoted Mini Coopers by causing a massive traffic jam. Caine’s devilish cool is nowhere to be found, and Wahlberg’s Croker has gone unflinchingly sentimental (and monogamous!). My, how times have changed.
The old man is John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) and the daughter is Stella (Charlize Theron). When the former is betrayed and murdered by Frezelli (Edward Norton) during a gold bar robbery in Venice, Charlie recruits the latter to find Frezelli and get back the goods and their dignity. Stella isn’t a thief like the rest of Charlie’s crew — Left Ear (Mos Def), the demolitions expert, Lyle (Seth Green), the hacker, and Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), the getaway man — but she does happen to be a safecracker like her old man, only difference being that she never veered from the straight life and works on behalf of the police.
The gang hatches more and more elaborate plots to take back what is rightfully theirs (police, by the way, don’t seem to exist in The Italian Job, nor anybody tracking Frezelli or Croker for the original Venetian theft) as Frezelli tosses up one roadblock after another, building to the chase scene that makes up the final quarter or so of the movie. Chase scenes are chase scenes, but this one is a cut above the recent rest, involving souped-up Mini Coopers that The Fast and The Furious would be proud to feature scooting through the cement-like Los Angeles gridlock created by Lyle, who takes over the city’s traffic control system while Croker’s squad retakes the gold.
The performances in this Italian Job are adequate and nothing more, which mirrors a script that lacks any character depth whatsoever. There are actually a few moments where it seems like Bridger might rise from the dead to offer counsel and comfort to protégé Croker, but thankfully that never happens.
Norton phones it in from somewhere on a nude beach with Salma Hayek, displaying zero interest in what for him must have been an exceedingly boring role. He’s done the Judas thief thing (The Score) and Frezelli isn’t exactly a cornucopia of complicated emotion. Norton actually looks at times like what he’s doing might make him vomit. Wahlberg and the rest apparently don’t know any better, and at least seem to be enjoying themselves.
A note about Lyle: For a movie about a robbery and revenge, The Italian Job devotes an appalling amount of time to elaborate jokes involving Napster. The outlawed file-sharing program shows up early on in what appears to be merely a backstory aside: that Lyle was Shawn Fanning’s roommate and is actually the author of the infamous software. It’s an odd bit of screen business, and it only gets odder. The Napster thing actually resurfaces multiple times, everywhere from Lyle hacking into places and proclaiming that he’s the “real” Napster to him demanding that Charlie and company call him — wait for it — Napster. This is barely amusing when it’s introduced the first time around, but by the time it becomes almost an integral part of the story it’s long past its sell-by date.
It’s one thing to be dated and allow fun to be poked, but it’s another to be so dated that nobody knows what exactly the dated thing is, or why it’s funny, and 10 years down the road when unsuspecting viewers are watching The Italian Job on DVD, the five people who still remember what Napster is will have already forgotten.
The original Italian Job is currently only available on DVD in Europe, which is a shame — it’s well worth seeing, and hopefully will be released stateside soon.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].