Bob Montagnet (Nick Nolte) is a thief, a junkie, a gambler, an art lover, a good friend, a better liar and a man with two passports – one American, the other French. As often as he gives into his vices, he acts with chivalrous decency. Within the first five minutes of our meeting him in a strip club he has saved a cop (Tchéky Karyo), stopped an Algerian dealer from getting deported and played knight in shining armour to an underage whore (Nutsa Kukhiani). When he bets his last euros on a losing horse, just to rid himself of a run of bad luck, he is preparing to clean up and move on to a long-ignored passion: heists. One of his entourage, Raoul (Gérard Darmon), has a job for him: a casino full of fake masterpieces, and the safe across the street containing the originals. But Bob has been sent down six times already, and the old dog has a new trick to try. Why not commit another more noticeable scam, to distract les flics from his main aim?
Imagine a hell where all your favourite films are remade with modern stars and none of the subtlety, artistry or energy that made them masterpieces. In fact you probably don’t have to punish your mind’s eye to picture such a situation, if the recent gush of Hollywood ‘re-imaginings’ to hit our screens is anything to go by. The best of this bad bunch have deliberately acknowledged their xeroxed nature: The Ring (2002) pivoted on the copying of a videotape, Solaris (2002) featured clones of deceased loved ones. Similarly, Neil Jordan’s new millennium take on Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1955) is awash with fakes and doppelgangers. The Good Thief is far more reverential to its source, as it tries to replicate the mood as well as the plot and characters of the relatively obscure but well-regarded film noir on which it is based. Melville’s version is meandering and inconsequential, probably most significant for being the first in a row of iconic French noirs that the director would direct rather than for any of its own specific merits. So by taking an imperfect film as his basis Jordan has much fun littering his film with twins, duplicates and doubles. In fact, Jordan’s original title for his renovation was Double Down – a gambling term that as much acknowledges its protagonist’s love for games of chance as it suggests the stumbling descent he confronts.
If your story concerns a man on his way down, then Nick Nolte is the perfect choice: an actor who exudes the morality and stature of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, yet is tainted with the recklessness and high-living more associated with stars half his age. Nolte is backed by a classy cast whose only drawback is their inexperience of English as a first language. Jordan presents a France where no-one communicates in their mother tongue, let alone French, which fits in perfectly with the motif of translation and rendition. The Good Thief is Jordan’s first work as a European. His previous films have either originated from the point of view of an Irish director in relation to Britain or as an Irish director working in Hollywood. The Good Thief is eurocentric, not merely in style (the orange filtered shots and stuttering editing often make this seem like Ocean’s 8 ½ ) but in nationality. Just as his country of birth is shifting away from its links to the UK into a successful role in continental politics, so this movie marks Jordan’s move away from anglicised themes. This is apparent in his Mediterranean setting, his restless, rootless characters, and his attention to a distinctly continental atmosphere. Ireland’s position in the European Union is being reflected by its filmmakers at last. All we need now is a remake of Le Samouraï (1967) starring Brendan Gleeson – or better still something original.