THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Itís shaping up to be a really good summer at the movies. In May alone, Iíve been mostly impressed with Hollywoodís offerings, from the action spectacle of X2 to the hilarity of Bruce Almighty to the brilliance of Finding Nemo, the movies have been uncommonly enjoyable. Oh sure, The Matrix Reloaded was obnoxiously self-important and Wrong Turn was dreadful. Still, there have been more hits than misses. Added to that list is The Italian Job, a movie thatís just plain fun. Although it arrives without the hype that has accompanied some of the more high-profile summer releases, the film is quality escapist entertainment.

Mark Wahlberg plays Charlie Croker, one of a band of thieves plotting a $32 million gold heist in Venice. His mentor, Bridger (Donald Sutherland), is ready to retire after this job. He urges Charlie not to make theft a lifestyle; instead, stolen money should only be used to give one access to the finer things in life. Other members of the team include getaway driver/ladiesí man par excellence Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), explosives expert Left Ear (Mos Def), and computer hacker Lyle (Seth Green). Along with the no-nonsense Steve Frezelli (Edward Norton), the crew steals a safe containing the massive amount of gold. This is one of the best scenes in the film, as they use carefully placed explosives to rip away the floor under the safe, thereby causing it to fall into their clutches. After an exciting boat chase through the canals of Venice, Charlie thinks his team is home free. Then Frezelli turns on them, taking the gold at gunpoint, killing Bridger, and leaving the others for dead.

Back in the States, Charlie devises a plan to steal back the gold. He gets help from Bridgerís daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), a master safecracker in her own right. She holds a grudge against him for pulling her father back into action, but she also wants revenge against Frezelli. ďI want to see the look on his face when he realizes his gold is missing,Ē she says. With Stella now on board, the team puts the plan into action. First they must get video surveillance from Frezelliís apartment in order to take measurements of the rooms and find the location of the safe. Next, they have to find a way to transport the gold bars quickly (Stellaís MINI car provides inspiration). In one of the movieís best ideas, Frezelli eventually discovers that his former teammates are not only alive but also planning to rob him, so he goes on the offensive, trying to throw them off track.

The Italian Job works on two levels. First, it is a well-crafted heist movie. The screenplay (based on a 1960ís film) is clever in its plot structure, throwing in some twists that add depth. For example, in order to create a distraction, Stella must go out on a date with flirty Frezelli. You can see the contempt in her eyes as she sits across the table from the man who killed her father. Itís a good scene, and so are many of the others. You also get to see the characters preparing their heists as well as pulling them off. The manner in which they try to steal the gold is simultaneously witty and exciting. Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator) almost makes the audience feel like a co-conspirator. He makes the preparation scenes pulse with energy, which then becomes cathartic when the plan is finally put into action. You really need to see the planning in a heist movie in order for the payoff to work. Most heist movies do give you this, but sometimes the planning sequences are less interesting than the heists themselves. Not here; everything builds to a final payoff that is quite satisfying.

Second, and just as important, the movie works as a character study. Each of the characters Ė no matter how much or how little screen time they get Ė is interesting. Whether it be the sadistic nastiness of Frezelli, the driven-by-revenge Stella, or the suave self-confidence of Handsome Rob, these are people you really want to watch. They have their own personality quirks, and itís great fun to watch them combine. My favorite character is Lyle, who claims to have been the creator of Napster until his college roommate Shawn Fanning stole it while he slept. (Fanning appears as himself in a cameo.) Lyle actually goes so far as to insist that the others call him ďthe Napster.Ē This is really funny stuff, indicative of the creativity put into each character.

The Italian Job strains credibility at the end, when all kinds of things that ought to immediately attract police attention fail to do so. Thereís really no way to pull this heist off without raising a lot of eyebrows. That hardly matters, though, when the movie is so entertaining. Every once in a while, a film comes along that is just so much pure fun that I kind of hate to see it end. This is one of them.

( out of four)

The Italian Job is rated PG-13 for violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

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