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The Italian Job

Years from now, film students will likely regard F. Gary Gray as a journeyman director that put a lot of film clichés to rest. Oh, heck, they do now. Unfortunately the way he's doing it is by overusing them, rather than find new ways to make his points. For those who like their movies familiar, Gray is your man.

His latest by-the-numbers effort, The Italian Job, follows some of the formula established by the 1969 original, with modern twists that have made the unexpected mundane. If you zone out, it's entertaining enough, but something's wrong when the freshest aspect of the film, fun with Mini Coopers, is lifted out of the original and still feels like kow-towing to modern product placement.

However, any film that actually involves three heists (because just one might give you time to think about the logic) can't be all bad. At least in Michael Goodson's book.

The actual Italian Job of the title is over with rather quickly. After calling his gorgeous daughter Stella (Charlize Theron), backsliding thief John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) teams with his protégé for "one last job" in Venice. (That's Italy, not California.)

Planned by the protégé, Charlie (Mark Wahlberg), the job involves a lot of men, crack timing, and a goodly amount of misdirection. By now, that lot of men comes straight out of central casting: the rough and tumble wheelman, the computer whiz, the munitions man, and the shifty guy whose skill remains undefined so he must be the traitor.

Luckily for the film, Gray cast Edward Norton in that latter role, a fine actor flailing about for characterization when the script gives him none. His "Steve," though, is meant to be a cipher, a guy with so little imagination that he has to steal everyone else's very ambition. It's an intriguing idea that falls flat.

Part of that is because the film doesn't revolve around Steve; it's actually about Charlie and crew getting revenge. They track him down in Los Angeles a year later, bringing in John's daughter who conveniently has all of her father's safe-cracking talent but … she's on the side of good.

Okay. So it's not really a surprise.

The other two heists are a part of that revenge on Steve, and though they're clever (and bring in those Mini Coopers), our fascination with the intricacies can't hide that there's nothing much else going on beyond the excuses to (hopefully) blow things up good.

Gray tries to mix things up with comic relief, but most of the time it feels rather forced. In a mid-film introduction of all the characters (yes, mid-film - the audience knows them, but Stella does not), we get silly flashbacks to all their childhoods, all of which linger too long to be funny.

Worse, Charlie's childhood vignette shows how he's always really been a noble thief. He has to be noble, because Wahlberg just isn't charismatic enough to make us like him otherwise.

There are other problems in using the former Marky Mark. From the very beginning, he and Stella have an obvious sibling rivalry/incipient romance. But Wahlberg just isn't old enough to have been under Sutherland's wing; not unless he started pulling full-fledged heists in junior high. The script also can't decide how well the star couple really know each other. If there's passion between the two, it's all off-camera.

However, all the supporting cast bring life to the cardboard cutouts they've been asked to play. Mos Def plays the munitions guy "Left Ear" with plenty of attitude; it's not his fault his scripted laugh lines aren't really funny. As wheelman "Handsome Rob," Jason Statham glowers, threatens, and makes you believe that yes, he pretty much can get any woman to sleep with him.

Proving that point in the movie's best scene, Seth Green's Lyle, aka "Napster" (don't ask), runs a narration over Handsome Rob's inaudible seduction of a hot cable technician (it's L.A.; everybody's hot). Like a lot of roles Green plays, just as it taps into what makes him a unique and valuable presence in film, it dances back into something we've seen before. Someday, somebody will figure out what to do with Green.

For now, if all you're looking for is chase scenes, a few explosions, and a hot chick standing next to the lead, The Italian Job does the trick. It's pleasant enough. But if you really want something satisfying, rent the original.

What's It Worth? $6.50

Derek McCaw

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