If there’s a more infectiously affable and charismatic actor than Kurt Russell then I don’t know of him or her. Sure there are performers with more dramatic range, others that are more consistently hilarious, and still others who look better in women’s clothing, but for my money none of them set me as instantly at ease as Russell. It’s what makes his near six-year absence from movie screens (2011’s little-seen Touchback aside) that much more frustrating.
And it’s what makes the new heist comedy, The Art of the Steal, that much more enjoyable.
Crunch Calhoun (Russell) is one of the best wheelmen in the business, but when his latest score goes bad he winds up serving hard time in a Polish jail. It’s not that he got caught, it’s that his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) sold him out to save his own butt. A few years later Crunch is a free man, breaking bones and bruising his body as an Evil Knievel knock-off taking dives for $800 a crash. His old team reassembles for a new heist, and while he’s no believer in the idea of “one last big score” he signs on hoping to make enough to retire.
The new heist involves a customs station in Niagara Falls and an incredibly rare copy of the Gospel of St. James printed by the man behind the Gutenberg Bible. Unfortunately, it also includes Crunch’s brother Nicky. The two are immediately at each other’s throats, but thankfully the rest of the team acts as a buffer between the feuding siblings. Francie Tobin (Jay Baruchel), Paddy MacCarthy (Kenneth Walsh), and Guy de Cornet (Chris Diamantopoulos) make up the rest of the amateur gang, but there are some equally talented (or at least ambitious) folks on their tail. Interpol Agent Bick (Jason Jones) is intent on their capture and enlists the aid of a convicted felon and art expert named Samuel Winter (Terence Stamp).
Writer/director Jonathan Sobel isn’t out to reinvent the “heist film” wheel, but he succeeds in delivering a casual, loose, and consistently entertaining flick. It’s lightweight and not quite as smart as it wants to be, but the characters are likable and amusing enough. The script has fun with the idea of an Ocean’s Eleven-like ensemble by pointing out what they don’t have – no whiz bang computer guy, no fancy video loop designed to confuse the guards – they’re old-school thieves, true artists, and at the end of the day, the good guys you can’t help but root for along the way. The characters and scams are all creatively named, and onscreen text keeps us in the loop as it all plays out before our eyes. As is the tradition with caper films some of the characters remain a step or four ahead of both their adversaries and the viewers, and while their actions and plans don’t always make the most sense they play with a casual confidence that makes it all forgivable.
There are some odd choices too that don’t completely work including a black & white flashback “story” about the theft of the Mona Lisa half a century ago. It’s a comedic bit that slyly imparts some story elements, but using the same cast as these historical characters makes it feel a bit too goofy. There’s also some voice-over, something that rarely adds to a film, and the result isn’t that much different here. Thankfully it’s Crunch (ie Russell) doing the talking, and with that we return full circle to the film’s core strength.
Russell’s performance is a joy and instantly brings to mind a mash-up between Tango & Cash and Deathproof. He sports that devil may care smile but pairs it with a leather-clad persona, and it’s his energy (combined with a fast-moving script and sharp editing) that makes the film feel more alive than it ultimately is. Crunch is the best wheelman, but we don’t actually get to see much of him behind the wheel. Instead it’s the wheels turning in his head that take center stage, from losing it all to struggling to regain both his dignity and a nest egg, and there are few actors who make the two halves of that coin as compelling and cheer-worthy as Russell. He’s been on a bit of a hiatus recently, but the next two years see him appearing in Fast & Furious 7 and the highly anticipated (by me at least) Bone Tomahawk.
He’s the real draw, but the rest of the cast offers up plenty of entertainment value as well. Dillon has been an under-appreciated comedic talent for years, and here he gets to mix that with his mastery of the smarm to great effect. Baruchel meanwhile shows yet again his impressive timing and delivery and makes himself a valuable sidekick. Jones seems to be taking a page from Rob Corddry’s post-Daily Show playbook with his performance, all bluster, rage, and frustration, but he finds more than a few laughs along the way. Stamp feels a bit out of place initially as he’s the only one walking through this with an air of seriousness, but that actually lends a credibility to the proceedings that benefits the story.
The Art of the Steal won’t be jump-starting a new franchise, but fans of quality ensemble casts, light humor, and twisty capers will find enough to enjoy here. It relies on dialogue, catchy onscreen text, and a fast-moving script that doesn’t quite hold up to serious scrutiny, but it manages pretty effortlessly to steal 90 minutes of your time without making you feel like you’ve been robbed of anything at all.
The Upside: Kurt Russell; the rest of the cast; some good fun
The Downside: Not nearly as smart as it thinks it is
On the Side: The film’s working title was The Fix.
The Art of the Steal is currently available on VOD.