Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett, Marlon Brando, Gary Farmer
Written by: Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, and Scott Marshall Smith, from a story by Daniel E. Taylor and Kario Salem
Directed by: Frank Oz
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 124
Date: 07/09/2001

The Score (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Big Swipe

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How many more crime movies can get away with the old "just one more big job, then I can retire" plot? John Woo's The Killer (1989) is still the king, and the recent Sexy Beast also did well by it. Still, anyone trying it again, after The Score, is going to have trouble matching up.

The reason is The Score's amazing cast. We're not just talking an A-list cast, we're talking A+. Start with Marlon Brando, whom I've come to cherish highly through his most recent work. In A Dry White Season, The Freshman, and Don Juan DeMarco he displayed a newfound grace and gentleness that lived comfortably on top of the old-time ferociousness.

He received an Oscar nomination for just a few minutes onscreen in A Dry White Season and he deserves another one for his work here.

He plays Max, a cheeky, old-time criminal who walks with a cane but still glides through a room. It's difficult to describe, but Brando simply sparkles on screen. When Robert De Niro, playing Nick, a master safecracker, turns up with a handful of stolen jewels, Brando delivers the stagnant old speech about how the buyer fell through and how Nick can make it up by performing one last job. He makes the lines sound like music, like butterflies flapping their wings.

Incidentally, The Score marks the first time these two greats have ever shared the screen, though they each played Vito Corleone at different ages in the first two Godfather films.

The catch on this new job comes in the form of Edward Norton (easily one of the top actors of his generation), as Jack, who masquerades as a mentally disabled man working in the Montreal Customs House in order to case the joint. The object of their hard work: a priceless scepter that once belonged to an Egyptian queen.

At their first meeting on the street, Jack pulls a fast one on Nick by posing as the mentally disabled character. After that, Nick doesn't quite trust him. Norton's double-play, borrowed from his Oscar-nominated role in Primal Fear, gives him a chance to show his chops among the more seasoned veterans. ("That kid's got quite a dog and pony show," Brando says.)

Meanwhile, Angela Bassett provides Nick's best reason for retiring. She's an airline stewardess who enjoys their part-time relationship, even though Nick wants to settle down with her and run his Montreal jazz club in peace. Refreshingly, the movie shows us onscreen kisses between the interracial couple, even if it can't spare the time for anything deeper between them.

The Score takes us through the planning stages, the setbacks, the doubts and fears of such a heist, then the inevitable double-cross and double-whammy (part of which the TV ad blatantly gives away). And thanks to the high caliber of acting, I was on board every step of the way. If this picture had been made with a lower class of actors (say, Kevin Costner and Matt Damon), it wouldn't have rated any attention at all. But here, everything comes together like a symphony.

I'm giving all the praise to the cast, but director Frank Oz deserves credit as well. Known mostly as a comedy director (and the voice of Miss Piggy), he's delivered some tightly-made lightweights like Little Shop of Horrors and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. With The Score, he handles his actors well and adds a light touch, while someone like John Frankeneimer (or, God forbid, Michael Bay) might have taken things too seriously. Oz places actors within his widescreen frame quite well, though he does resort to that old action-movie shaky-cam from time to time when things get tense. He still manages to keep everything clear and readable though, unlike Kiss of the Dragon. (Another fun fact: Brando, DeNiro, and Norton have all directed movies: One-Eyed Jacks, A Bronx Tale, and Keeping the Faith, respectively.)

In addition, the producers could have done far worse than hiring screenwriter Lem Dobbs (who co-wrote with Kario Salem and Scott Marshall Smith), one of the best in the business. He's best known for an as-yet-unproduced script called "Edward Ford" that's won all kinds of "Best Unproduced Script" contests. But he's also contributed to excellent films like Dark City and The Limey. And composer Howard Shore also ranks among my personal favorites as well, having scored films like Dead Ringers, Ed Wood and High Fidelity. Here he attaches a lovely jazz-type score, keeping in touch with DeNiro's jazz club, but also bringing to mind those dingy 1970s cop movies and TV shows.

I suppose I should be griping that this mass of top talent all came together for such an ordinary kind of story, but I'm not. Like a family of acrobats, this particular team knew how to stretch out and grab each other's limbs in just the right way, skillfully keeping the production from falling. It's an act I enjoyed immensely.{subid}&url=hitlist.asp?searchfield=marvel
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