Neil Jordan’s filmography lists only 14 films but his presence as a director seems to loom a lot larger than the volume of his output. His subject matter ranges from gangsters and lowlifes (Mona Lisa) to the Irish "troubles" (The Crying Game, Michael Collins) to World War II romance (The End of the Affair). He seems able to work in most any style, including bitingly dark satire (The Butcher Boy), horror, and comedy, too. What makes his movies special is that he not only masters each genre but he also consistently creates memorable, fully developed characters. He seems especially good at drawing the best out of his actors and so they welcome the opportunity to work in his films.
Jordan is obviously enamored of the film literature, drawing on the styles of the past and updating them with his own wit and contemporary viewpoint. His latest entry, The Good Thief, is a reworking of the classic Jean-Pierre Melville Bob Le Flambeur, a French New Wave film in the noir tradition. The Good Thief is a heist film in which what happens to the hero, Bob (Nick Nolte), is more important than the heist which provides the narrative thrust.
Bob is an American thief, now living in Nice, an addict and a gambler, a denizen of backstreet nightclubs with backroom poker games. Trouble starts when Bob rescues a 17 year old, Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze) from the clutches of club owner Remi (Marc Lavoine) who is recruiting her into prostitution.
On a losing streak, Bob is running out of money. When one of his colleagues invites him into plans for a spectacular heist in Monte Carlo, he sees it as a last chance to recoup. He quits the drugs, going through painful withdrawal, and he gives his one item of value, a painting, to a dealer (Ralph Fiennes) who advances him the money expected from the sale, thus providing the capital for the heist. An electronics and security expert, Vladimir (Emir Kusterica) is brought in to provide needed expertise for the job.
Jordan expertly develops his multi-charactered plot, providing each major turn with motivation that makes it all seem plausible. He captures the texture of not-so-nice Nice, the sleazy world of pimps and hookers, where drugs and sex are readily available commodities and life is cheap. He’s interested in the ethos of gambling and makes reference to chaos theory and prime numbers. And he’s not beyond throwing in a musclebound MTF transsexual with an advanced case of arachnophobia and the Polish brothers as–what else?–a pair of crooked twins. Tongue is firmly in cheek here.
But in the midst of all that, Jordan imbues his hero with principles and a backbone. Bob doesn’t take advantage of Anne, even when she throws herself at him. He’s loyal to friends and he keeps his word. He turns out to be a "good thief" and there’s direct allusion to the thief crucified with Jesus, the thief whom Jesus promised salvation because he had a contrite heart. But don’t worry that this breezy tale will sink into heavy morality lessons. Jordan’s too subtle for that. His script is chock full of wit and snappy lines and it has a romantic tilt all its own.
Young Nutsa Kukhianidze (17, as is the character she plays), of Georgian (Russia) origin, is a charmer with a smoky voice; there’s some stiffness to her delivery of lines, but not enough to dim her glow. The sterling cast of supporting actors all fit the bill, but it’s Nolte’s show. His face here has the furrowed wrinkling of a bulldog and his gravelly voice has a texture that suggests a history of too many cigarettes, too much dope, and too much booze. He goes from idle debauchery to cleaned up professional (even as thief) without ever failing to show his pleasure at the game.