When a gold heist goes horribly wrong for Charlie (Mark Wahlberg), and his team, including demolitions expert Half Ear (Mos Def, "Monster's Ball"), driver Handsome Rob (Jason Statham, "Snatch"), and hacker Lyle (Seth Green, "Austin Powers"), the group must pull themselves together and plan revenge on the one that crossed them: the villainous Steve (Edward Norton). With the help of a safecracker (Charlize Theron) who wants to inflict her own vengeance on Steve, the team fashions an "Italian Job," and proceeds to map out an elaborate citywide plan featuring the use of Mini Coopers to get the gold back, and exact revenge on Steve in the process.
Some might find it sacrilege that Paramount and director F. Gary Gray would remake the 1969 British classic, "The Italian Job" (IMDb listing), for modern audiences. But with heist films all the rage, and the rise of Mini Cooper cars, the time is right to revisit the story. Of course, they've Americanized it, with the setting now Los Angeles, and the cast filled with eclectic international talent of all shapes and sizes.
The main reason I've come to celebrate "The Italian Job" is for its restraint. Gray is a director well known for not having a subtle bone in his body, and his leanings toward the obvious are presented here without shame. But the film doesn't feature much at all in the fireball department, and only a couple of scenes include shootouts and tough talk. Gray is more fascinated with the Minis, and the iconic flavor they hold. He saves the money shots for the ending, in which the Minis are set loose all over L.A., slipping and sliding over the geography like they were Hot Wheels for God Himself. It's neat to watch Gray actually use his directing prowess for good, even under the considerable weight of a larger-budgeted production that constantly leans toward empty calories. Gray keeps "Italian" light on its toes, and never stops, for fear the audience will catch up to it.
With the focus often being the hardware, the cast is placed second on the list of priorities. This is generally a good thing when the lead actor is Mark Wahlberg. "Italian" doesn't offer much for Wahlberg to do, and that's just great. The last thing this limited performer needs are scenes of drama. Gray keeps Wahlberg's emotions to a minimum, and his attention focused on looking tough. The supporting cast gets the fun roles, with Seth Green whooping it up as the computer geek who's pissed about Sean Fanning stealing his idea for Napster. It's funnier than it reads, believe me. Charlize Theron is also good as the vengeful safecracker, and she also makes the Minis unexpectedly sexy.
Evildoer Edward Norton is the real question mark of the production. Hollywood gossip suggests that Norton was badgered into "Italian" due to a contract stipulation he had ignored for years. Even without that info, you can clearly see Norton is slumming. With a moustache to twirl, and a lack of gleam in his eyes, you can almost imagine that Norton has a pocket calendar in his left hand that counts down to the day he can leave the production. It's not necessarily a bad performance, as Norton isn't all that powerful a performer, but more that he isn't trying very hard. It's an acting job based upon what Norton thinks audiences expect bad guys should act like. There is little depth to the portrayal, and therefore the payoff, or comeuppance, doesn't quite have the sting it should.
Of course, our old friend logic comes into play once the film sets up the central heist. Questions like: Who are these people? Who is funding this entirely expensive operation? And why, if they're doing this for revenge, do they take such drastic measures to relieve Steve of his gold bars? As Che sang in "Evita," "That's not the point, my friend!" "Italian Job" is a loose, comedic actioner that's meant to keep you slack-jawed and making stick-shift hand gestures in your theater seat. And on that level, it works brilliantly. To look for deeper layers than that is pointless. For a thrilling piece of mouth-breathing summer entertainment, this is one of the better rides you will find.
Filmfodder Grade: B+