The Score
Director: Frank Oz. Cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett, Paul Soles, Jamie Harrold, Gary Farmer, Richard Waugh, Mark Camacho. Screenplay: Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, and Scott Marshall Smith (based on a screen story by Daniel E. Taylor and Kario Salem).

Script credits that involve four separate names and sharply divide a "story" credit from a finished "screenplay" contingent usually spell bad news. The roster of multiple names brings to mind the old adage about too many cooks and spoiled pots. The partition of the writing into two separate moments, where one set of people had the idea for the movie but someone else got called in to scribble it down, often connotes that the filmmakers didn't perfectly agree about what they were doing. Granted this isn't always the case: both of the Toy Story movies, for example, had eight credited writers, and it would be hard to find a sharper one-two punch in any film medium, animated or not, in the last few years. Plus, the presence of Lem Dobbs, who crafted Steven Soderbergh's bristly yet cool The Limey two years back, raises expectations that at least someone knew how to put some criminals into action. Still, the question hangs over the credits: Are these fellows up to it?

What makes The Score such a consistent entertainment is that the same question—are these fellows up to it?—hangs over the entire enterprise, both within and without. What makes The Score a fantastic and welcome treat is that everyone involved is able to answer in the affirmative. The outline of the narrative itself, the work of story artists Daniel E. Taylor and Kario Smith, doesn't distinguish it from a host of similar movies, past and present. To wit: a semi-retired thief of solid reputation, now hiding out and living a relaxed, quiet life in a foreign city, is drawn back into the proverbial "final job" by a flamboyant acquaintance who is both fascinating and untrustworthy. The woman in the thief's life is furious that he'd even consider participating. Beyond even the unsavory character extending the invitation and the ceaseless string of promises that he was finished with burglary, there are other disturbing factors: for one, the fact that the target institution is better-protected than anyone's experience allows for, and also the fact that the hothead who has laid out the initial plans is a virtual stranger whom our thief has no reason to trust.

Now, take a break from this review, go see Sexy Beast, and notice that the above description of The Score's plot is wholly accurate as a description of that movie, too, to say nothing of The Asphalt Jungle, Topkapi, and all kinds of progenitors that The Score doesn't waste time trying to disavow. The familiarity of this material is undeniable, but thankfully no one before or behind the camera treats it too reverently or, even more tempting, adopts the empty pose of ironic disavowal that has sunk most genre exercises for the past several years, particularly those who read their genealogy no further back than Quentin Tarantino. In fact, the filmmakers seem to take a cue from their brigand protagonists: no job is ever a sure thing, and therefore each must be treated with respect, sincerity, and precision.

These qualities The Score and all of its collaborators have in abundance. In fact, not since 1997's underseen Blood & Wine, with Jack Nicholson and Jennifer Lopez, has a crime thriller so unapologetically embraced its sturdy, unrevolutionary ingredients and delivered them with such clean, transfixing polish. Cinematographer Rob Hahn and editor Richard Pearson work unobtrusive wonders tightening each shot, each pan, and each cut so that the movie achieves the lean, fierce competence of its central characters, and Jackson de Govia, an art director whose name meant nothing to me but will now, has assembled several key locales—a jazz club, a high-security customs headquarters, a concealed garret of safe-cracking hardware—that acquit the good taste of the filmmakers and the characters. The Score is the kind of movie that performs a known genre well enough to restore jaded viewers to some essential truths: for example, that art thieves would appreciate beautiful things, inhabit clean, well-organized spaces, and feed these appetites through a lifestyle that nonetheless eschewed ostentation. The Score's technicians have clearly got their number.

And yet, The Score wouldn't be half of what it is without a director and a trio of principal actors who capitally raise the potential for both rewards and surprises. Again, the question of "Are they up to it?" attaches itself even to this proven set of talent, though for different reasons. Director Frank Oz, who first won attention as the animating force behind Yoda and has spent his directing career helming sitcommy schtick like What About Bob? and In & Out, does not have a name that carries any weight in the thriller genre. Like Curtis Hanson, who wandered into L.A. Confidential as a little-noted gun-for-hire, Oz somehow manages to make his own improbable presence work for the movie; certainly The Score shouldn't be closely compared with Hanson's more tremendous achievement, but in each case our tenuous faith in the project's helmer feeds the suspense of the plot. We not only wonder if the characters will get what they want, we question whether these unproven talents will maintain the high level of cinematic brio that's supporting them along the way. In Oz's case, he shows a sense of timing and a patience with quiet exposition that nothing in his comic work disclosed: he isn't afraid to let a suspense movie lay low for a few sequences, confident as he rightly is that when he does quicken the pulse, he'll quicken all of our pulses.

And then there is the cast, whom the press has repeatedly christened "the best actors of the last three generations." That may be the case of Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Edward Norton, but it's the complicated ironies surrounding such an assertion, not the assertion itself, that brings the picture alive. First, we must remember that Brando, De Niro, and Norton have been rumored to be, if not the best, then at least the most mercurial talents of three generations, and each has even directed his own movie (Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, De Niro's A Bronx Tale, and Norton's Keeping the Faith), so we're used to viewing them as men with a jones for control. A plot where every point on this heady triangle is vying for supremacy can only be enhanced, and is, by our perception of the actors as control freaks, even if the perception isn't true (see how I covered myself there?).

Moreover, a funny thing happens when you hold three great actors up against one another—there's suddenly a chilly prospect that one or all of them won't pass muster. I mean, when you put Robert De Niro in a film opposite Ben Stiller and Teri Polo, you kind of know who's going to win (and, to its credit, Meet the Parents deployed De Niro's preeminence perfectly against his largely terrified onlookers). Walking into The Score, though, you start to wonder: is De Niro's implosive reticence going to work against Norton's penchant for showy affectation? (As in Primal Fear, and sort of in Fight Club, he's playing two personalities within the same body.) Is the notoriously capricious Brando, inflated by now in every sense of the world, still present enough to avoid the artistic hara-kiri he committed in The Island of Dr. Moreau and that Christopher Columbus movie? At every level, The Score feels like a three-way battle among lightning talent, and Oz's crew has competently put all of the electricity and the risks generated by these bright lights up there on the screen.

I don't want to take away from the fact that, beyond having all the ingredients for a uniquely absorbing movie, the film actually produces one; if I'm making it sound as though all the fun in The Score lies in a bunch of hoity-toity meta-awareness of who these actors are in real life, then I'm under-selling the movie's pizzazz. Here are a few blurbs on action: there's a fraught conversation in a public park that held up favorably to the outwardly "civil" standoffs in North by Northwest, which I saw again in a revival house on the same day. The climactic heist itself improved easily on Mission: Impossible's recent high-wire example, and the requisite twistiness in the denouement was handled without a lot of self-congratulatory theatrics.

Admittedly, I can't claim either that The Score capitalizes on every one of its opportunities—and, as always, highest on the list of underserved talent is Angela Bassett, who is fierce and redoubtable in her two scenes as De Niro's stewardess girlfriend, but who gets nothing else to do. She appears on screen two other times, in a single shot each time, and with not a word of dialogue. How many times do I need to say it? Hiring Bassett and making her The Girlfriend is like buying a Stradivarius and leaving it in its case. Even Brando fades into the background (as if that were possible!) more than one anticipates, and there are whisperings about a super-mastermind named Teddy that are never realized by the screenplay. Actually, now that I think about it, after Sexy Beast and Memento, that's three double-dealing criminal hotshots named "Teddy" in the last three months alone. Which brings us back to the idea that there may not be much new about The Score, and yet its borrowed jewels are allowed to gleam and sparkle like none of the other summer blockbusters have. Grade: B

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