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The Italian Job

 


Gen X movie review The Italian JobQuentin Tarantino must be rolling in his grave. Who would have thought bad-boy New Kids on Block rock star Mark Wahlberg would be the guy to drive the stake through Tarantino’s icy black heart?


Wahlberg plays mastermind criminal genius Charlie Croker in the new film The Italian Job. Charlie creates complex heists using high-speed shell games, precision explosives and sophisticated computer imagery, but he’s really just a very nice guy. He doesn’t resort to violence or swear or even raise his voice when things get tough.


He’s the kind of crook you’d bring home to meet your parents.


The climate has turned radically in the 11 years since Tarantino gave us the colorful gangsters Mr. White and Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs. Quentin’s thugs were always out for themselves: Mean, dirty, violent nihilists working in a world devoid of moral substance. Their heady nostalgia for the ‘70s of Charles Manson and Black Power signified a new sort of chic punk aesthetic. The world had ended and pop culture was feeding off the remains, burning bodies as fuel for its violent imagination.


These days hoodlums are cute and dimply team players, all-American kids with winning smiles and a solid work ethic. Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), the getaway driver, is sexy in a clean hygiene sort of way; Steve (Edward Norton), the second-in-charge after Charlie, has a quaint television addiction; Left-Ear (Mos Def), the demolitions expert, wouldn’t hurt a fly; and Lyle (Seth Green), the hacker and computer nerd, is more interested in entertainment technology than a life of crime.


This clean-cut group plays by the rules, shares their lunches and knows when to put their differences aside for the common good. Their de facto father figure and veteran safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland), comes out of retirement to help Charlie and company on a very special job in Italy. Their goal is to rob a fortune in gold and escape without harming anyone. Corporate America could take a page from these guys.


If the Tarantino formula featured the individual, films like The Italian Job are all about the group. These people interact more like an extended family than an uneasy collection of rabid animals. Bridger is definitely passing the torch to Charlie as the film begins, and Sutherland is excellent in the role as an aging master thief. “There are two kinds of criminals,” he tells Charlie: “Those who steal to enrichen their lives and those who steal to define their lives. Don’t be the latter.”


But after Bridger is disposed of unexpectedly, Charlie must learn to accept his place in the network, as the head of the family. The money is taken to America by a double-crosser among the group, who promptly buys the largest television set he can find.


One year later Charlie reunites with the Scooby Gang to try to recover the stolen loot. Needing a safecracker, he turns to Bridger’s daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), who has her father’s skill, but has never done a professional job. The two become romantically involved – of course – and bond over their semi familial relationship with Bridger. Like stepbrother and stepsister, they share an incomplete memory of the man: When he was not with Stella or in prison, he was teaching Charlie everything he knew about being a thief.


Charlie grows into his new position as the plot takes on new shape, and the group unites as a sort of family. Like most families, however, they have a black sheep, a creature cut from the same zoot suit as most Tarantino characters, the lone wolf who stole the group’s money for himself. He has isolated himself from not only the family unit, but the larger society, and sits alone in his mansion watching reruns of Friends, Frasier and Family Ties.


He has spoiled the real treasure of The Italian Job -- the connection he had with his fellow crooks -- and is now basically an exile. He counters the organic family unit, headed by Charlie, with armed automatons, has no friends, and lives in a vast, empty castle. He orders his security guards around like chess men, misunderstanding and underestimating the fluid communication of the family. He has cheated himself by cheating the code of thieves.


The Italian Job suffers from only a couple truly bad scenes and survives a dreadful Ukrainian mob subplot fairly well. The only really unfortunate mistake is killing off Sutherland’s character too soon. He is magnetic on screen; a rare, beautifully aged thing, like fine wine or good art, and his absence is palpable.


Although Steve may be the most seductive figure in the film, and Charlie its main focal point, I don’t believe there’s a star of The Italian Job unless it’s the Cooper Mini. The Mini is stylish, yet operates (in this film at least) as part of a larger cooperative. It doesn’t flash like a Lamborghini or shimmer like the semi-mythic Triumph Speed Triple of Mission Impossible II, but it has an undeniable charm.

 

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