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In The Nick of Time: An aging gambler (Nick Nolte) offers a young girl (Nutsa Kukhianidze) some sage advice in 'The Good Thief.'

Stealer's Wheel

Nick Nolte plays a rogue's rogue in 'The Good Thief'

By Richard von Busack

THESE AREN'T good times for rogues onscreen. Oh, we have bastards, we have compulsion cases, we have emotionless criminal businessmen. All three types are plighted with issues about their parents, which they'll be delighted to share to you during the course of a movie. But rogues? Genuine layabouts? Good-time-seeking wastrels who, like Jack Kerouac, confuse the two nouns "beat" and "beatitude"? These are a rare species (where have you gone, Dude Lebowski, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you), and their very rarity is the one reason to go easy on sly but slim The Good Thief.

Laying down the gambler's motto--"It's not about winning, it's about attitude"--Nick Nolte plays a careless drifter in Nice, a king in his world who gets close to chains because of his paternal fondness for a novice prostitute. Anna (the Georgian actress Nutsa Kukhianidze), who has a face like a debauched 9-year-old, is gravitating toward life as a hooker. Bob tries to interrupt the process, installing a little self-respect in her before she drifts away.

The film is based, sort of, on J.P. Melville's 1950s film Bob le Flambeur. Yet there's not really a frame in it that looks like Melville's fascinatingly cool exercise in the American gangster-movie style. Director/writer Neil Jordan has--like Melville--made this an homage to the movies, but the films he's saluting are more on the line of Let's Get Lost and Bay of Angels. Jordan's clever change of scenery from Bob le Flambeur's Pigalle (still polluted from the touch of Moulin Rouge!) alters the emphasis. Melville's views of Montmartre night life made every crummy cafe look sexy; Chris Menges' photography in The Good Thief makes the grime and heat of the low-rent parts of the Riviera hot and humid. Roger Duchesne's Bob was a silver-haired knight; Nolte is a happy, heroin-fancying bum.

A plot of sorts involves the theft of a group of paintings stashed in the basement of the Casino at Monte Carlo. Bob, despite police surveillance of the most gentlemanly sort, decides to help himself to one last score. This involves getting together a gang of eccentrics, but this heist is neither especially cleverly engineered or a cause for too much attention.

The dialogue switches between French and English, and you could speculate why it jangles so often. Hard-boiled has been a dialect Jordan knew how to speak. (Which of Jordan's movies includes the threat "How'd you like to pick up your bloody teeth with broken fingers?" Mona Lisa?) The cop (Tchéky Karyo) who becomes Bob's friend doesn't have dialogue that sounds even as movie-Gallic as Claude Rains' epigrams in Casablanca. Still, Nolte--that battered loafer, with his corrugated forehead and his permanent slouch--is one grade-A rogue. In the last scenes, he evinces an existential grace, giving Anna--and us--a lesson in classiness.


The Good Thief (R; 109 min.), directed and written by Neil Jordan, photographed by Chris Menges and starring Nick Nolte, Tchéky Karyo and Nutsa Kukhianidze, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell.


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From the April 10-16, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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