“The Art of the Steal”
Some surly, vaguely threatening gangsters enter a pristine room while all manners of machinery buzz to life. What these dubious men have come here for is the examination of a stolen Paul Gauguin painting. But we soon realize the man brought in to examine the authenticity of the painting is a fraud. These gangsters are about to be double crossed and fleeced out of their own stolen goods.
So begins Jonathan Sobol’s “The Art of the Steal,” a clever and wizening tale, though it sometimes underwhelmes when it aims to please. Its poster features an eclectic gang of malcontents brought together in a line of photoshopped grandeur, but this undersells its content. Sobol’s film is vulgar, yet filled with an overriding sense of humor; easygoing, yet the heist is a familiar brand of subterfuge presented in a new less interesting foil. Art heist films themselves can become an uneasy sell and they usually portend old men enamored by beauty like Christopher Walken in the undercooked “The Maiden Heist” or bourgeois tales of stolen bottles of wine in Peter Yates’ tepid “Year of the Comet.” However, “The Art of the Steal” occupies a niche somewhere in the middle; where the bawdiness of primal heist films from “Snatch” to “Ocean’s Eleven” meets the sophisticated class of “The Red Violin.”
Sobol’s pulp caper follows that aftermath of a heist gone wrong. Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) is implicated in a crime for filching the Gauguin painting in the films prologue. The now wealthier brother of Crunch, Nicky Calhoun (Matt Dillon), is free to walk the streets, continuing his ways of stealing where Crunch left off. Simmering in a Polish prison for some years, where the cells are so overcrowded with murderous meatheads that Russell gets stuck with two of them, Crunch eventually gets released and goes back to his old profession as a stuntman. He takes falls for cash and finds himself ingratiated with a new crowd of colourful malcontents. Now Crunch has Francie Tobin (Jay Baruchel) as a punk mechanic with a nebbishy voice lilt and Lola (Katheryn Winnick) who is a questionable, but steady new girlfriend.
Crunch finds himself in another tight bind when a ruffian comes blasting through his house door to press him about a stolen Georges Seurat painting. Flustered and now cornered in his bathtub, Crunch finds that Nicky is still up to his dirty ways; cheating dangerous men out of their stolen goods. He eventually has to go to one of his old team members, ‘Uncle’ Paddy MacCarthy (Kenneth Walsh), to find if Nicky is moving the painting. After a scuffle with Nicky in Paddy’s apartment, MacCarthy informs the Calhoun brothers that a new lucrative opportunity has arisen; stealing an original apocryphal text printed by Johannes Gutenberg. However the rub is that the team has to steal it back from U.S. Customs before they can authenticate it and lock it up under layers of security – promising the end of anyone ever getting their hands on the book again.
Assembling a team of old hands at the heist trade, as well as Crunch’s new companions, Francie and Lola, Sobol finds ample opportunities for having characters second guessing their entire endeavor. This eventually supplies much the the narrative engine for “The Art of the Steal” and thusly becomes the central focus of the entire film – even after the team has pulled off the supposed daring heist. Just as the characters of “The Art of the Heist” remain wary of each other, the film seems just as unsure of itself.
It’s enjoyable to Russell in fine form once again. The naturally masculine and wrinkled hero had a string of hits that involved utilizing a balance between comedy and action and “The Art of the Steal” is no different. But Sobol decides to play to individual actor strengths. Russell is given a haggard visage and bounces off of Dillon’s sleuthy untrustworthy character. Terence Stamp and Jason Jones as mismatched officers of the law remains a satisfying display of comic relief however both are severely underutilized in the film.
Writer-director Sobol knows he’s working with a prime piece of cheese and writes in little snide remarks which announce itself as such. Namely, that our team of heroes he’s composed are a bunch of men whose names sound like an assortment of chocolate bars. It’s unfortunate that the central heist of the film isn’t completely compelling. The interplay between characters becomes the most endearing portion of “The Art of the Steal.” But even if these characters make for good company, after a while their constant bickering over each other succumbs to diminishing returns on its novelty.
“The Art of the Steal” marries some visual flourishes of vintage heist films such as “The Thomas Crowne Affair” and newer genre tropes from Guy Ritchie’s tough English bloke narratives. The film has a plucky attitude which helps proceedings move along without delay. It’s a swift effort and the performances are proficient enough that it can distract from the muddy colour palette “The Art of the Steal” adopts. The requisite incremental piling on of double crosses, sleight of hands and everyone-has-an-angle type plot flourishes also get a well worn walk around the block.
Ultimately, Sobol’s “The Art of the Steal” is amusing. It’s non-offensive, unassuming and generally out to please with its best intentions laid out from the beginning. Which is fairly fine, but all the materials, from the cast to the sharp quality of humor, are there for something far better than what’s on screen. Not many risks are taken, and the plot becomes severely convoluted by the end, but the film needs a more eclectic push toward something more memorable. That idea may seem ineffable, but the giant vagina statue, which plays a pivotal role in “The Art of the Steal,” isn’t the kind of detail that should be the most lasting memory.