The Italian Job
A Film by F. Gary Gray
Co-written by Donna and Wayne Powers from an original screenplay by Troy Kennedy-Martin

This latest film from director F. Gary Gray is one of the most satisfying renditions of the "caper film" in recent years. Adapted by Donna and Wayne Powers from the original screenplay for the 1969 film of the same name by Troy Kennedy-Martin, this version moves the action from Turin, Italy to Los Angeles and creates a whole new sub-plot that adds interest and emotional texture to the story.

Gray is a director whose earlier genre films (Friday, Bring It On, A Man Apart), while competently directed, provided little outside the predictable, formulaic mold (although Bring It On's all-girl bank-robbing gang was an interesting twist).

His work with Denzel Washington, in The Negotiator, on the other hand, took "hostage drama" in an interesting new direction psychologically and his direction managed to combine suspense, action, and thoughtful dramatic development in a way that is relatively rare.

While with this one exception Gray's films haven't been stylistically or thematically ground-breaking, they have shown signs of a director honing his craft - working in the trenches of commercial success to establish a mastery of the job he has undertaken.

In The Italian Job, Gray puts what he has learned to very good use. Without betraying the demands of the "heist-movie" category, he introduces some moral complexity and some emotional texture even as he manages to put a reasonably fresh spin on both the chase sequences and the suspense that are part of the formula.

Car chases, implausible plots, explosions and cool crooks oozing machismo, are, unfortunately, all too easy to do, and they have been done to death (see almost anything produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and/or directed by Michael Bay). There are many more failed entries into the class than successes. But Gray exploits the strengths of the genre and glosses over the weaknesses with an excellent sense of pace and rhythm.

The plot is full of holes, of course - as it always is in these films - but it follows in the footsteps of such great caper/ensemble character flicks as Rififi and Topkapi - and is a much higher impact, modern version of them. The violence is restrained, the focus is maintained, and the editing, camera-work and music work together to choreograph a ballet that is all but irresistible.

This movie had a lot to overcome - not only the over-used story conventions, but also the central presence of "Marky Mark" Whalberg, whose past work has been about what you might expect from an underwear model. But he does a very good job here - much better than expected. There is a scene early in the film with Donald Sutherland that establishes the bond between his and Whalberg's characters that drives the whole rest of the film. It is realized with an economy of direction and a chemistry between the actors that is quite remarkable.

And speaking of the actors, the ensemble here admirably does what is required - fills out and adds interest and idiosyncrasy to a predictable plot. Does anyone ever seriously doubt that Whalberg will emerge victorious? This is, after all, not a French film.

Ed Norton - who plays the smarmy villain of the piece, Steve Frezelli - is first among equals. He makes the amoral, treacherous Frezelli three-dimensional - not a likeable character, but a believable one. He puts enough energy into his character that - even though his doom is foretold by the nature of the film itself - the conflict between him and Whalberg's Charlie Croker creates real tension.

What is so amazing about Norton is that he can go from a character like Sheldon Mopes (Smoochy) in Death To Smoochy, to a character like Worm in Rounders, to a character like "the Narrator" in Fight Club, to a character like Derek Vinyard in American History X, and make all of them - attractive, repulsive or a mixture of the two - so unique and effective.

The gang members have their characteristic bits that provide humor, romance, irony and texture to the narrative onrush. Charlize Theron, as Stella Bridger, the scion of safecracking-expert and Cocker's mentor John Bridger (Sutherland), is attractive, intelligent and tough enough to give credibility to her character's competence and ambivalence.

Jason Stratham, as wheelman Handsome Rob, gives the impression that he is holding back - that there is much more he might do with his character if the screenplay allowed. This sense of muted power is not altogether bad, as it adds an interestingly edgy, if slightly distracting, energy to the mix. Mos Def as explosives expert Left Ear, provides another distinct personality, whose eccentricities provide both comedy and suspense.

Seth Green as computer geek Lyle has the best comic bits, playing on his hapless, clueless, wistful man/boy persona to provide needed comic relief and an element in the pacing that neatly counterbalances the mandatory tensions of this type of film.

As commonly happens in genre film, character development and narrative subtlety are sacrificed to the demands of formula, but in this case the characters are well-written enough that they engage attention and give the sense of being more interesting and complex than the small part of them that appears on screen.

The wife and husband writing team of Donna and Wayne Powers certainly deserves a lot of credit. To undertake a basic plot situation that has been made and remade - sometimes brilliantly - since the beginning of the history of cinema (as well as in literature) is a daunting task. To succeed as well as the Powers have is remarkable. It is their combination of cleverness with discipline, of energy with restraint, of focus on the formula with attention to character detail, that makes the familiar situation seem new and exciting - in spite of its foregone conclusion.

And of course the actions sequences, directed by Gray and photographed by Cinematographer Wally Pfister are a central part of any such film. Here they are carried off with such panache, such breathless pacing and such appropriately dizzying camera-work that they fulfill their amusement-park-ride-like function with great vigor.

The boat-chase through the canals of Venice is a "can-you-top-this" moment that I think will become a classic benchmark against which future efforts will be judged - and the Mini-Cooper chase sequences - which were hallmarks of the original film as well - are masterpieces of vehicular choreography. But the stunt scenes never become the whole focus of the film - as they do in many failed attempts in similar films, including Gray's own A Man Apart.

The heart of this film lies in the fact, that, unlike many soulless attempts to exploit the model, it has a heart. The writing team creates, and the director and actors have the patience and skill to develop, believable personalities, characters about whom an audience can care, which gives emotional resonance and a sense of grounding to what otherwise might be another pointless exercise in special effects and stunt co-ordination.

I can understand how someone jaded by over-exposure to second rate caper films like, oh, Gone In Sixty Seconds, say, or The Score (that featured Norton valiantly struggling with a much less well-written role) might fail to be engaged by this, but really - it has it all: intelligence, character, action, humor. It is simply one of the best recent examples of the caper film - on a par with or slightly better than Nine Queens, The Spanish Prisoner and even The Usual Suspects.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.