The main dilemma of all crime films is getting the audience on the thieves’ side, which usually means to make them funny, likable and/or have admirable traits. The audience has to forget that these people are committing crimes, but still believe the realism of the situations. Thanks to a talented cast and great directing from F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, Friday) this film, based on the original 1969 film of the same name starring Michael Caine, succeeds on many levels mostly as a great piece of entertainment.
Mark Wahlberg gets the lead role as Charlie Croker, a talented thief with an expert team including “Handsome” Bob, played by Jason Statham (The Transporter, The One), Left Ear, played by musical artist/actor Mos Def, a computer expert named Lyle, played by the always funny Seth Green (Austin Powers movie series) and Charlie’s mentor John Bridger, well played by Donald Sutherland. Yes, all of their names have some useful purpose in the plot mostly for important background information or just entertainment (The crew’s special acronym for F.I.N.E. and the running joke about one character’s relationship to Napster keeps the film’s mode fun and light).
Sutherland gets a low amount of screen time, but makes it count with focused emotion that makes the audience care about his character. “I trust everyone, I just don’t trust the devil inside them,” John says. Edward Norton (Red Dragon, Fight Club) and Charlize Theron (Reindeer Games, Mighty Joe Young) also star as Steve Frezelli and Stella respectively. All the characters have a great purpose in the plot even some Ukrainian criminals, a street smart information man who likes golf and Rob’s mechanic friend Wrench who seems to be along for the ride until the end of the film.
Charlie’s crew doesn’t get a proper introduction until later in the first half of the film – a risky plot technique that might have some audiences wondering if these guys are worth cheering for. Filmmakers solve this possible dilemma with a sweet mentoring scene between John and Charlie while keeping the purpose of the first action sequences a mystery, so the audience will be dazzled with the ensuing action and smart tactics which are conducted without special effects shots and blue screens, except for a setting change when director Gray pans right from urban Italy to some snowy mountains.
The second half film has just as many hooks and made several audience members in my theater lean up towards the screen. That’s a great sign that the audience is really involved in the film and rewards the filmmakers, cast and crew for a job well done. The action sequences were well done especially an exterior street scene involving some elaborate explosives. Look carefully and you might see Spider-Man among the fleeing civilians.
Another memorable line from John sums it up pretty well – “never steal to enrich or define your life.” Filmmakers wisely use character dialogue to justify their actions. Take Stella’s example when she says, “He took [that] from me, so I’m taking this.” The audience can easily understand the situation and respects how each character struggles with right and wrong, but when it comes down to fighting a greater evil, each character carefully makes the choice with good intentions. They don’t seek to kill even when they have the chance.
Some faults include scenes where Left Ear and Steve mention dogs then never build on that element later, missing a possible opportunity to work it into the plot somehow. The Mini Coopers provide great action elements, but you can tell writers had to be imaginative to work them into the plot. Also, Mini Coopers would mostly be used in a European setting, but since they’ve become so popular here, the car placements would be more realistic in the plot and go beyond a mere product placement. The romance between two characters also could’ve used more development, but it probably would’ve slowed the plot a bit too much. Also, the audience may not really understand what opening a safe by touch means, but in retrospect, an explanation through character dialogue probably would’ve slowed the plot.
Some audience members might also wonder why a tunnel wasn’t blocked to prevent people from following, but think about what the escapees had – only the essential equipment – and you’ll see there’s no way they could’ve blocked it. Maybe something inventive like a tough wire cable would’ve worked (bulletproof glass would’ve been nice too), but then the audience wouldn’t have enjoyed the ensuing chase sequence.
This film takes it easy on the audience on an entertainment level. You will probably feel tense, but not gut wrenching tense. You’ll feel more awe and excitement rooting for appealing characters whose goal was never about the money – an admirable trait in today’s materialistic world. Stay for the closing credits to get some entertaining closure on certain characters. Recommended (*** out of four stars) and rated PG-13 for violence, language and sexuality.
Copyright © Michael Siebenaler