The Score

Jul 18, 2001 at 12:00 am

Flat and lukewarm, The Score disappoints like champagne the day after the party regardless of legendary names or vintages. And names up on the silver screen don’t get more legendary than Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Together, they should be a multigenerational dream team of screen method acting. But they’re not.

De Niro defrosts a character he cooked up for the heist film Heat (1995). The Score’s Nick Wells is a professional safecracker as meticulously precise as the tools he custom manufactures for his trade in his secret home metal shop — and not much warmer. The passion he may have felt for Angela Bassett’s Diane seems to have burned down to a little more than room-temperature sexual companionship. Nick is that one clichéd last score away from retiring from his life of crime and into something like matrimony with her.

Brando seems to toss off what basically amounts to a prolonged cameo appearance as Max Baron, Nick’s fence of 20 years. Max seems to also function as a kind of criminal agent for Nick. He has ulterior motives for selling Nick on a multimillion-dollar heist of a French national treasure locked away in an impregnable safe within the bowels of Montreal’s Customs House.

But neither Nick nor Max are the true masterminds of this heist. Edward Norton’s Jackie Teller is the young man with the plan. Under the guise of a learning-disabled Customs House maintenance man called Brian, Jackie has cased the joint from the inside for months. And Norton, who pulled off something similar in his break-out role in Primal Fear (1996), is brilliant in the role-within-a-role of Jackie and Brian.

Max plays matchmaker to the odd couple of high-rolling Jackie and Nick, who seems to approach his jobs with all the daring of an insurance claims adjuster. Sparks fly, finally setting off The Score.

And it’s about time. Comedy director Frank Oz (Bowfinger — and the voice of countless Muppets from Miss Piggy to Yoda) and TV screenwriter Kario Salem (“The Rat Pack”) seem to have earnestly studied heists — but not heist films. And they could use a refresher course in basic drama. Like Nick, The Score has a meticulous sense of detail, but it’s underpowered plot and direction tug us through the minutia of the robbery scheme at the pace of a training film. Salem doesn’t put the squeeze on his motley crew until the middle of his screenplay, and he and Oz only manage the odd drops of adrenaline with a twist at the climax. Neither seems to realize that from cinema’s first heist film in 1903, The Great Train Robbery, through the rule-breaking Reservoir Dogs (1992) to this summer’s Swordfish, the active ingredients of the genre include the violence and visual flash that this movie avoids.

Only Ed Norton pops and sparkles. Lighting up the screen with a presence his faded super-costars never really demonstrate, he steals the show. In fact, in this otherwise lackluster heist movie that doesn’t know the score. Norton may be the only winner.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].