movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 2001 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

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The Score

In the first scene of The Score, Nick Wells (Robert De Niro) breaks into a safe. He carefully places the drill bit, bears down on it, and watches as iron filings curl away. His drilling is drowned out by the party downstairs. He calmly goes about his work, not breaking a sweat. But then the master bedroom door flies open and a young couple enters. Nick dives behind a love seat. The woman settles down and her boyfriend grinds between her legs.

At this moment, the movie seems headed for the kind of cocky, overly-familiar thrills and jokes that you might expect in a Jerry Bruckheimer production (a la Gone in Sixty Seconds or Con Air). But then the filmmakers throw in a twist: the woman stops her boyfriend and pulls out a reefer. Her boyfriend takes this as an insult to his lovemaking technique and storms off. She sits back, not particularly disappointed in this turn of events, and looks across the room. Nick remains hidden behind the love seat. She turns her head toward the closet--where Nick's tools lay strewn on the floor. It takes a couple seconds, but then she realizes what's happening. As she rises, Nick's hand closes around her mouth. "Don't scream!" he whispers. In the next camera shot, Nick walks to his van, carrying a canister of helium. He's the balloon man.

While the scene first appeared headed toward a cheap insertion of sexual titillation, the screenplay then subverts our expectations. But the twist is such a mild surprise that the opening scene hardly seems worth the trouble.

So goes much of the rest of the movie.

The Score is basically a heist film--from a genre over-burdened with its own familiarity. Director Frank Oz (who last helmed the comedy Bowfinger) successfully navigates the pitfalls of this genre in a workman-like fashion, producing a movie that avoids the obvious and provides a few small surprises along the way. But the key word in that statement is "small." This isn't a hyperactive action movie; it's a relatively low-key tale. Unlike so many recent Hollywood genre flicks that attempt to overpower their audiences with pumped up volume and rapid-fire editing, The Score puts its emphasis on its characters. So the producers put together a killer cast.

Robert De Niro plays a veteran thief planning one last heist before he calls is quits; Edward Norton is the insider at the Montreal Customs House who provides floor plans and other information; Marlon Brando is the fence who urges Nick to accept the job; and Angela Bassett is Nick's girlfriend. She's eager for Nick to settle down. All of the characters have potential but none of them make much of an impact. The dialogue lacks bite. Nothing really digs far beneath the surface. Nothing is particularly memorable.

Nick is a quiet man who offers little information about himself. We hear him talk about not taking chances (that's how he has plied his trade for a quarter century without ever landing in jail), and we see his elegant, tasteful apartment and the nightclub, named NYC, that he owns and manages. But Nick remains distant, an enigma who is difficult to warm up to. Those scenes that might let us really get to know and understand Nick are completely missing. In their place, the movie provides the machinery of the heist itself.

The classic heist film Jules Dassin's Rififi also spent an extended period of time on its heist sequence, but the remainder of the movie (a substantial portion of the movie) then focused on the aftermath--as the plans went awry. But The Score rushes through its aftermath. Disappointingly, when the movie most needs to deliver the goods, it pulls up short, offering a final scene that brings up more questions that it resolves. The ending is an audience pleaser in some respects, but it's telegraphed so far in advance that it hardly comes as a surprise. (Many audience members filing out of the theater could be heard saying they saw the final twist coming.)

For the most part, the script lets down the actors. It's one of those over-revised affairs (three names are attached to the screenplay and two to the story) that feels manufactured when in needs to feel spontaneous. But The Score is such a pleasant movie that most audience members probably won't mind or even notice.

Edward Norton gets the flashiest role. He plays a young know-it-all named Brian Teller who has staked out a heist. Now he just needs someone to "do the box" (and that's where Nick comes in). Norton gets to strut his stuff in a role that allows him to do large parts of the movie in a Rain-Man-meets-Sling-Blade mode (a character he assumes in order to weasel his way into the Customs House as a janitor).

Meanwhile, Marlon Brando offers his least flamboyant characterization in many years. Typically, directors lose control of Brando altogether--as happened on The Island of Dr. Moreau. But director Oz kept Brando in check--much to Brando's dismay, who responded by refusing to allow Oz to direct him. De Niro had to be enlisted to direct these scenes, while Oz watched on a video monitor in a room away from the set. Luckily, whatever struggles took place seem to have paid off and Brando delivers a likable, human character, a charismatic Sydney Greenstreet. However, when it's time for his big scene, when Nick threatens to drop out of the heist and Max (Brando) must plead with him--"for old time's sake"--to stay the course, the scene strangely fizzles in a collection of generic dialogue and reactions.

The Score is a near miss. It definitely has star power and the production is competently handled, but the movie never really catches fire. It avoids the heist movie clichés, but it doesn't avoid becoming generic--and utterly forgettable. (Even the movie's title is generic.) The Score isn't a bad movie. It's just a shade above mediocre. And considering the talent on hand, that's a disappointment.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]