Racing Movie Month: "The Italian Job (2003)" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Rating: PG-13
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: May 30, 2003
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Genre: Action / Crime / Thriller

For those who are fans of the smooth caper film, along the lines of "Ocean's Eleven" and its sequels, then F. Gary Gray's romp "The Italian Job" is a gem of a film. With glorious chases and a really inventive way to run off with millions in bullion from a safe, this is a fun action ride from beginning to end. The cast, featuring Donald Sutherland as the leader of a gang that includes Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton, Seth Green, Jason Statham and Mos Def, this movie literally hums from start to finish.

The story gets underway with a chase that travels Venice's canal system and ends, ultimately, high in the Alps where the robbers apparently split their spoils. However, the complication starts with betrayal and homicide before the story moves to Los Angeles. The gang members who lost their gold find Sutherland's daughter Stella (played by Charlize Theron), a safecracker, and ask her to help them get the gold back. Stella's car? A Mini Cooper. This is important because a small fleet of three eventually becomes part of the revenge plot. Two interesting points: the gang also drove Mini Coopers in the 1969 original version of this film, and the Mini Cooper just came back into manufacture at the right time for this movie to feature it prominently.

One of the best things about this movie is that it is one of the few thrillers in the 2000s or 2010s that doesn't cover itself in gratuitous violence. However, the cast is also terrific. One example is Seth Green's character, Lyle, who plays the gang's computer genius/nerd. Lyle believes that he invented the music sharing site Napster but that his college roommate stole the idea from him and became fabulously wealthy as a result. When Lyle changes all of the street congestion in Los Angeles by altering the timing of the city's traffic lights, he sends a message to the city: "You will never shut down the real Napster." The boiling pirate that is waiting to leap out of every nerd genius is one of the best parts of Green's portrayal.

The other members of the gang, while following formula, are also fun to watch. Left-Ear (played by Mos Def) is the demolitions expert who always has something to say, and his humor in the role leaves Don Cheadle's perhaps better known turn in "Ocean's Eleven" a bit dry in comparison. Mark Wahlberg's presentation of Charlie is another of his incarnations as a combination of leading man and action hero, along the lines of James Cagney. He handles the action sequences more than ably, but his general lack of charisma still keeps him out of the top tier of action heroes. Even when he gets riled up, the passion one would expect from that sort of actor remains absent. Edward Norton (Steve) skilfully plays the shifty pathological liar who is the traitor in the operation of thieves. His eyes, while deeply set, never get that focus that he uses brilliantly in more intense roles such as the profiler Will in "Red Dragon." They shift constantly, along with the rest of his face, leaving the audience with a sense of true disengagement, which is often the true sign of a sociopath. It is this looming menace that made Norton's performances so successful in films such as "Fight Club", "25th Hour" and "American History X."

There are a few times when the movie seems to drag. While the chase scenes are fun to watch, there are also a lot of extended shots of the Mini Cooper fleet. However, it is the human interest part of the story that makes it fun, and building that part of a movie simply takes time. It is one of the few action movies in which the audience waits for the chases to end so that they can see the people interact some more. This is a testament to the skill of screenwriters Wayne and Donna Powers, who imbue their characters with enough detail to make them three-dimensional instead of flat types. The audience finds the crooks to be likable knaves, as is common in the caper film genre (see everything from "War Games" and "Sneakers" to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Tower Heist")

Calling this movie smooth and crisp is one of the better compliments that a caper thriller can receive. The casting gives a collection of strong character actors a chance to shine and give their roles a bit more depth than one might expect, which is a pleasant surprise. The audience leaves the theater with a sense of fun, none the worse for wear.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5