"The Italian Job," the 1969 original, is an uneven little heist film about stealing $4 million in gold in the middle of a traffic jam. It's remembered fondly in some circles because of Michael Caine's dewy-eyed charm, the hilariously ambiguous ending ("Hang on a minute, lads ... "), and the car chase around Turin, Italy, in which three Mini Coopers zip in and out of places the police, with their bigger cars, cannot reach. It's giddy fun seeing the small survive by virtue of their smallness.
"The Italian Job," the 2003 remake, replaces Michael Caine's considerable charm with Mark Wahlberg's nonexistent kind. Hollywood gave up on ambiguity decades ago, so there's little hope there. But how about the Minis? (Now owned by BMW, and relaunched, loudly, as MINIs.) Surely the getaway in the MINIs works. Yes?
Except this would require two things: 1) an occasional distant shot, and unfortunately director F. Gary Gray is from the quick-cut, extreme close-up school of filmmaking, so there's little sense of the MINIs weaving and winding their way to safety; and 2) the MINIs would actually have to be chased by cars. Here, two motorcycles and — ahem — a helicopter give it a go. The coolest scene with the MINIs turns out to be the first — a parallel-park maneuver that was done 15 years ago, and 100 times better (see distant-shot critique), by Jackie Chan in "Dragons Forever."
The story: Wahlberg plays Charlie Croker, a criminal mastermind who gathers his team of experts (safe-cracking, computers, explosives) and steals $35 million in gold from a palazzo in Venice, Italy. After toasting their success in the Austrian Alps, Steve (Edward Norton), the inside man, betrays them, kills veteran safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) and leaves the rest for dead in icy waters. Apparently hypothermia isn't a problem in this universe because they survive, and even stand around patiently in the snow while Wahlberg, holding father-figure Sutherland in his arms, attempts to project an emotion.
A year later, they finally track Steve to L.A. But these are nice thieves, and instead of simply killing the S.O.B. they go through elaborate machinations — including hiring Bridger's daughter, Stella (the va-va-voomy Charlize Theron) — to heist the gold back. Each crook has his quirk. Left-Ear (Mos Def) has a predilection for shoes. Handsome Rob (Jason Statham) is good with the ladies. Lyle (Seth Green) claims to have invented Napster. Between them, there's some not-bad chemistry, but it's not like we haven't seen it before.
Charlie's quirk, meanwhile, is criminal genius hiding behind an impenetrable wall of absolute blandness. This is Wahlberg's third remake of a '60s film in three years ("Planet of the Apes," "The Truth About Charlie"), and it's time he left that poor decade alone.
Erik Lundegaard: firstname.lastname@example.org