Imagine a large, dead Saint Bernard with its bones removed. Then visualize a hefty bellows inserted into it from behind, with a gorilla hopping up and down on the contraption, causing the huge dog's baglike corpse to twitch spasmodically, wheeze and croak. Voilà: This is today's Nick Nolte. What's amazing is that even though he makes Chewbacca sound like Charlotte Church, the beloved croaker's acting chops are sharper than ever. His charisma transforms Neil Jordan's The Good Thief from a vague, mildly exotic, character-driven caper flick to a soulful and engaging misadventure.
Loosely but lovingly based on the late Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 film Bob le Flambeur, Jordan's update is a study in grit and grace, a portrait not just of low-roller-of-late Bob Montagnet (Nolte), but of the environments that have shaped him -- and left him misshapen. Unlike the classic by Melville (né Grumbach; apparently he dug the author), the new project takes place not in Paris and Deauville but in the back alleys of Nice and amid the glamorous vistas of Monte Carlo. In both films, le flambeur differs from a mere gambler (or un jouer) in that the titular character is dangerously addicted to playing, can't stop and doesn't want to, even when it's obvious to everyone that his chips are down.
Quite unlike elegant, laconic Roger Duchesne in the original film, Nolte's Bob is a ragged powerhouse, a boundlessly self-fictionalizing chatterbox -- and a junkie to boot. When we first meet him in a skanky strip club, he's desperate for a fix yet still in command of the situation when friendly undercover cop Roger (Tchéky Karyo, late of The Core) nearly dies at the hands of a young Algerian punk who's terrified of being deported home. Bob and Roger have an unusual relationship for a criminal and a cop in that they look after one another as "co-dependents," not quite guardian angels but certainly not conventional adversaries. Whether compassionate Roger pleads with Bob to stay out of jail or American Bob accuses the French of screwing up rock & roll, their relationship offers a delectably subtle twist on the threadbare buddy motif.
Of course, this remake wouldn't fly without a sexier parallel relationship, and here we get dewy newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze as Anne, a sort-of stripper/almost-prostitute whom Bob takes under his aching, long-experienced wing. (How does she compare with the original's Isabelle Corey? Each does nicely, thank you.) A recent import from Bosnia (she dryly jokes, "Is that what it's called now?"), Anne's a pretty mess, and Jordan likens Kukhianidze to the discovery of Jaye Davidson for The Crying Game, although she's actually more like a soul sister to La Femme Nikita's Anne Parillaud. Fortunately, rather than predictably using the dysfunctional and disoriented waif to bolster Stone Age Bob's grandfatherly stature (as we see in far too many American movies), there's restraint and another twist. Bob takes her home to his civilized flat, but there, despite a strong sugar-daddy element, she mostly humors the endless amorous advances of Paulo (Saïd Taghmaoui of Hideous Kinky), who's basically Bob's valet and one-boy fan club.
As with Melville -- whose smartly nuanced films generally favor atmosphere over action -- Jordan keeps the plot pretty simple while adding inventive new layers. Bob's old partner Raoul (French star Gérard Darmon of Diva and Betty Blue) suggests one last big score, to hit the Casino Riviera during Grand Prix, but not specifically for the cash. Rather, the Japanese owners have produced perfect counterfeits of their collection of priceless European art that hang throughout the casino. Jordan's wrinkle is to set up two heists, a cover heist supposedly for the cash and a real one for the genuine paintings, hidden nearby in a high-tech underground vault. Enter Bob's team, including techie headbanger Vladimir (Emir Kusturica), twin con men (Mark and Mike Polish of Twin Falls Idaho) and a jaw-dropper of a transgendered bodybuilder (Sarah Bridges) who happens to be terrified of spiders.
A true artist of cinema whose works range from deliriously weird (The Company of Wolves) to wickedly wonderful (The Butcher Boy), Jordan is addicted to unusual situations and spring-loaded dialogue. ("A good fake?" asks Ralph Fiennes here as a psychotic art dealer. "Isn't that a contradiction in terms? 'Good fake? Happy homosexual?') The director could no more make a pallid genre wannabe such as Heist or the Ocean's 11 remake than he could take on the South of France without dousing it in contempo-funk and stifling the air with the rotting vocals of Leonard Cohen. Observed through the twitchy prism of Nolte, this Bob offers a brilliant contrast to the original, concluding in a sensational cure for the shakes.