Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Morefield
Most heist films fall into one of two categories. The first are films which rely heavily on withholding information from you so that you can be surprised by the elaborateness of the con—“The Sting”, “Maverick”, and in some ways, “The Usual Suspects” fall into this category. The second type sets up an impenetrable fortress and allows you to watch as the protagonists creatively break down its defenses—think “Entrapment”, and “Oceans 11”. “The Italian Job” is one of the latter, although it doesn’t spend much time setting up the difficulty of the heist, preferring to show its intricacy as it unwinds.
Of course, the most generic element of the contemporary, American version of the genre is the morally bankrupt antagonist from whom the loot is being stolen. American Robin Hoods don’t have to give to the poor as long as they rob from the rich, foreign, or arrogant. “It was never about the gold for me,” Stella Bridger (Charlize Theron) tells turncoat murderer Steve Frezelli (Edward Norton in one of his too-cool to-care sneering roles). As if to underscore this point, Steve gets not one but two on-screen murders, whereas our heroes allow a Ukranian mobster to do their wet work for them. The message is clear: Steve may have been one of the group, but he certainly wasn’t like them—or us. Hence it’s okay to steal from him. That the movie never deals with where the money came from in the first place is part of its moral naivet. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a surprise when Charlie (Mark Wahlberg) starts gunning his car through the sidewalk and subway, and the viewer must confront the fact that while Charlie won’t target them, innocents will die if they get in his way. Oh, they never do, but that, too, is part of the movie’s moral fantasy.
“The Italian Job” suspects that the average film watcher can’t deal with moral ambiguity (and it may be right) and so bends over backward to make the crooks morally palatable. We get Charlie’s mentor (Donald Sutherland) giving him the fatherly advice that a life of crime means loneliness and isolation; but unlike films such as “The Score,” “Heat,” and “The Godfather,” and “The Sopranos” which actually show the numbing effects of destructive choices on characters, “The Italian Job” resides in the fantasy genre which allows Charlie to have his cake and eat it too. The film’s back story tells us that Charlie has been in every job with Stella Bridger’s father, but he is willing and able to abruptly retire upon completion of his biggest score. And Charlie’s and Stella’s gleeful bantering as the mobsters tell Steve how they are going to torture him seems to show, and invite the audience to participate in, the kind of sadism that is at odds with the more frothy tone of the film. Don’t get me wrong, Steve made his own bed, as the movie bends over backwards to stress. But his fate, and the characters’ reactions to it, is typical moral hypocrisy/wish fulfillment. The characters and audience get to give full indulgence to their desire for vengeance without having to dirty their hands or think of themselves as killers.
That being said, I should underscore that as a fantasy rather than a realistic drama, “The Italian Job” works well, and I did enjoy it. While the climactic heist lacked the intricacy of “Ocean’s 11”, neither did it make me totally suspend disbelief. Mark Wahlberg as Charlie and Charlize Theron as Stella are sufficiently interesting to watch, and Norton gives a confident, if generic, turn as Steve. The latter is strangely pathetic in a scene in which Charlie confronts him with the fact that he has no dreams of his own and hence can only use the money to buy things he knows the others want. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy the toys that bring it. “The Italian Job” won’t win any awards, but it is a fun summer matinee movie.