It may seem as though it would be hard to go wrong with a heist movie. The genre gives off the impression that it pretty much takes care of itself, with the production of the movie being as straightforward and easy to pull off as the heist it’s depicting on the screen. With heightened expectations for a near-guarantee fun time at the movies comes heightened pressure for a movie to deliver on the scale as many of the most beloved films of all time. So although The Art of the Steal may not live up to the likes of caper classics such as Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Inception, or Guy Ritchie-type movies if that’s your thing, it makes up for some of its more tired clichés with some new twists and capable storytelling that warrants praise.
Written and directed by the rising and Canadian-born Jonathan Sobol, the movie employs all the tricks these types of films tend to throw in. Kurt Russell plays the leading man, Crunch Calhoun, an art thief/motorcycle stunt rider recently released from prison who is persuaded to take part in the “one last job” scheme we’ve seen many times before. His primary accomplice and brother Nicky is played by Matt Dillon, and their partnership is fraught with tension and some bad blood from the past. They put together their old crack team of wisecracking misfits to carry out a cracking plan of stealing a certain history book that is sure to make them all rich. But of course, there are unexpected speedbumps along the way.
It takes a while for the film to set all this up, and along the way it seems to struggle to find the right tone. Russell’s performance as Crunch has the makings of a smooth operator who is a bit rusty, maybe has lost his touch, but remains likable, but some of the dialogue he’s given to work with falls a little flat early on, particularly a montage wherein his catchphrase is “Oh boy.” This plays for a kind of broad humor that makes the whole thing feel like it’s really trying to play it safe early on. Add to this the main antagonist of the film, Interpol Agent Bick played by Jason Jones, who has his moments but again, too often does not quite hit notes that feel at all surprising; he draws laughs but predictable, too deliberately timed ones. His aide played by Terence Stamp, a convicted art thief now working with the international authorities, seems wasted, not much more than a thin foil for Bick’s outrageousness.
Eventually, though, it finds a bit of a groove. Jay Baruchel, playing Crunch’s “apprentice” Francie, offers up some genuine, seemingly off the cuff moments of well delivered incredulity and “new guy” ignorance. A small moment that crashes his jittery awkwardness with Jason Jones’ tough guy buffoonery is executed to perfection.
It’s a scene maybe halfway through the story, though that gives The Art of the Steal its first real compelling, even enthralling, bit of cinematic delight. It consists of Chris Diamantopoulos’s forger character Guy recounting his favourite heist in history. This sequence is edited for a nice little combination of laughs and intrigue. We’re listening to him as intently as the other characters.
Where the story proceeds from here is first disappointing, then satisfying, then uncertain, but ends remarkably strong. The main twist unfolds rather nicely, and whether viewers find it predictable or not (I didn’t see it coming, but I rarely see twists coming), its execution should satisfy, and indeed makes up for elements of certain characters that had seemed like weaknesses before more information was made available to us.
It would have been nice for it to have been more enjoyable before the flares and revelations in the film’s end, but these latter elements retroactively make The Art of the Steal amusing and entertaining overall. As heist films go, it will surely be considered a minor contribution to the genre’s history, but it’s not exactly trying to move mountains and shake up the game. Its intended comedic style and weight-bearing twists work just well enough to be a pleaser. Sobol’s love of the genre, if nothing else, is obvious, and with the help of a likeable cast and a steady pace, it gets the job done.