The Art of the Steal, 2013.
Directed by Jonathan Sobol.
Starring Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Jay Baruchel, Kenneth Welsh and Chris Diamantopoulos.
Released after seven years in a Polish prison having been double-crossed by his half-brother Nicky, stunt rider and art thief Crunch Calhoun is tempted back into the game for one final heist that could set him and his old crew up for life.
On the basis of the synopsis alone this is the type of film many people would run long and hard to avoid. Given the nation’s propensity for obesity and, we’re told, diabetes on an epic scale, Brits running at all seems so unlikely as to prove just how high the bar is for yet another movie of just-one-final-job capering.
Never read other reviews before writing your own, we’re told, and though I didn’t it wasn’t easy to avoid the general feeling of apathy and mild contempt that greeted the North American release of the Art of the Steal last year. That it gets a UK release months later is surprising. That it’s actually pretty good is as implausible as spotting a camel strolling down the Kilburn High Road.
Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) is released from a miserable seven-year stint in a Polish prison, where he’d been dumped thanks to a him-or-me double-cross by his recalcitrant brother Nicky (Matt Dillon). When Nicky gets himself in bother with a local villain back in Canada, Crunch is dragged back reluctantly into the world of art thievery, and forced to work once more with his only mildly apologetic brother and the pair’s old team.
The crew, including a Frenchman, a newbie and a dirty old Irishman played amusingly by Kenneth Welsh, set about robbing art and making forgeries, and of course there may or may not be another double-cross in the offing. Something goes on involving a four-foot plastic vagina, though I must confess that bit of the script confused me; I think perhaps they were planning to hide a painting in it but it may only have been there to make a particular wisecrack from one of the characters work.
What swiftly becomes apparent is that the screenplay plans to keep you entertained with its dialogue, hoping to stay just the right side of witty in order to paper over the cracks of the hoary ‘team of thieves betraying each other’ plot. It succeeds, handsomely. From beginning to end the interplay between the characters, with Kurt Russell frequently at the apex, is lively and entertaining, with Chris Diamantopoulos’s Frenchman Guy and the group’s new boy Francie (Jay Baruchel) proving excellent comic foils.
Russell is on excellent form here, so much so that I’m getting near to forgiving him for Death Proof. A scene with an old flintlock pistol and resulting pirate jokes is very funny (“A guy in your line of work might prefer doubloons”). His slow-motion change of facial expression as he grimly accepts he has to take a dive on his stunt bike (“It pains me to say it Crunch, but the only reason these folks are here is in the hope that you crack your skull open”) for the measly sum of $800 is priceless. Splendid one-liners are everywhere. And of course he has Kurt Russell’s unfaultable hair.
Elsewhere there’s a minor role for Terence Stamp, who steals every scene he’s in and as usual makes us wonder why he’s not regarded as one of Britain’s most revered and treasured actors. The only minor issue is Matt Dillon, cast as the villain of the piece. He gets a few choice lines here and there, but the script is keen for you not to be on his side for a reason, because believe me that script’s going to play out exactly as you expect it to, right down to the BBC Hustle-style reveal.
I can’t remember having seen a film that’s so obvious and uninventive and yet so pleasing at the same time, or at least not one without Arnold Schwarzenegger and many, many machine guns. The dialogue engenders a good few out-loud laughs, Jonathan Sobol’s direction is perfectly decent and the plot bumps along inoffensively enough to allow the actors to shine. What the first round of critics wanted from this film, with this cast, God only knows.
If you’re willing to take a punt on a film that is, ultimately, Ocean’s 11 minus the smugness (enjoyable as that film is, it ain’t half smug), you’re on a winner. If you’re expecting something Lynchian, you’d best keep on running.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★