The Good Thief Film Review | TIFF 2002

by W. Andrew Powell
The Good Thief

Let me be honest, I’ve never really liked Nick Nolte before. He’s a consummate actor, but there’s always just been something about his characters and performances that didn’t quite sit right with me. That’s why I have to admit that I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I loved him as Bob Montagnet in The Good Thief. That’s to say nothing of how much I liked the film itself and the wonderful cast that made it as good as it was.

Starring in the film are three of Bob’s guardian angels: Tcheky Karyo, as Roger, the young new-comer, Nutsa Kukhiandze as Anne, a kind of oddly romantic figure in the film for Nolte’s character, and Gerard Darmon as Bob’s “business associate”, Raoul. All of whom seem to admire Bob, and are constantly looking out for his best interests.

The Good Thief follows Bob at one of the most desperate points in his life. He’s an ex-thief who’s broke, hooked on drugs, alcohol and gambling, and seemingly living from day-to-day. That’s when he meets Anne on one of her first nights on the job as a prostitute, and runs into an old cop friend of his, Roger, who happens to worry a lot about Bob falling into the same old criminal patterns. Of course, as fate would have it, Bob happens upon the “perfect” heist the very next day, and from there, everything begins to fall into place for a night to remember.

In a simple respect, The Good Thief is based on Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1955 film, Bob le flambeur, which also spawned the two Ocean’s 11 films, and probably influenced a variety of other “let’s rob the casino” films. However, I don’t think The Good Thief is quite as simple as all that.

Sure, it’s rough at times, and even fairly honest about aspects of life, but it’s also an elegant and amusing marriage of the classic heist film, with some wonderful character development, as when we see Bob handcuff himself to his bed to clean the drugs out of his system. Seeing how Bob tries to find a new life for himself when he really has no hope and seeing how down-and-out he is just makes for an even more endearing character and some great plot turns that go beyond what you might expect after seeing the recent Ocean’s 11.

It’s a slyly engineered film that endears you to Nolte, no matter what he’s doing. You just can’t help but feel for the guy and wish him the best. He’s also not exactly your common thief, he’s above that and shows a moral regard for Anne, even when he could have easily taken advantage of her. As Nolte said in a press conference here at the festival, an American film might have turned his relationship with Anne into something a little less respectable, but director Neil Jordan builds something much stronger between the two characters… it’s a simple combination of respect, love, and an almost familial sort of admiration.

There’s more that could have been done with the film, and some people won’t like what Jordan has done here, but I think real lovers of the classic heist films will admire what Jordan and Nolte have done together. I also think that thanks to an excellent soundtrack which features Leonard Cohen, Bono, and some Middle-Eastern sounding techno, it’s easy to imagine yourself and the characters strolling through the lush city with it’s atmosphere and elegantly dirty back streets.

However, my greatest praise for the film goes to Nolte and Karyo as his cop friend. Roger seems more interested in protecting Bob than solving any crimes. That’s why it’s especially satisfying the way everything comes together near the end… you can feel the tension in Roger’s voice, and you can just imagine what he’s feeling as he tries to hunt down Bob to foil his plans. That’s why The Good Thief works as both a drama and a weird comedy film without ever feeling forced, a trait that many more films could learn from… especially when it comes to the concept of good versus evil. That’s not always something that an audience wants to choke on, and characters like Bob and Roger easily blur the lines in a way that propels the story, and their relationship in the film.

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