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An inveterate gambler, good luck has been a stranger to Bob for years - but he accepts his lot with grace and a freshly pressed suit. He's a beautiful loser, as Leonard Cohen would put it, and director Neil Jordan evokes Bob's first incarnation by slipping Cohen onto his remake's soundtrack not once but twice.

Nick Nolte, on the other hand, makes his Bob more grimy than glamorous. In the remake's opening scenes, we see

Nick Nolte and Nutsa Kukhianidze put their criminal heads together in The Good Thief.
Bob Montagnet shooting heroin in a filthy bathroom, and throughout the film, Nolte lets dialogue tumble from his mouth like crumbs of food forgotten in anticipation of the next bite. The Good Thief's Bob's appeal comes not from underworld chivalry but from not caring what anyone else thinks. (He can't even be bothered to tell the same lies twice.)

Similarly, Jordan doesn't care if we approve of Bob's reasons for agreeing to plan an enormous heist in Monte Carlo. Where the original implied that the reformed thief agrees to "one last big job" in order to rescue a beautiful young girl from poverty, this film gives us the babe and the bounty on separate platters. (Played by newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze, Thief's young girl exists mainly to look sinful in slinky outfits and to convince us that Nolte's "stone age" loser has a sex appeal his healthier colleagues lack.)

The filmmakers lay the caper's groundwork hurriedly, rushing without seeming to cover much ground. Jordan employs an odd visual tic, ending many sequences with freeze-frames that last less than a second; the effect is to fill the movie with jump-cuts, keeping us from being entirely seduced by Chris Menges' cobalt-tinged, smoke-and-streetlights cinematography.

That's an especially strange tactic given that Thief is a more romantic film than Bob - it may begin in the gutter, but builds up to a criminal fairy tale which spares viewers the French story's sour notes. Where original director Jean-Pierre Melville viewed his gambler with a wry detachment, Jordan ends up in Nolte's pocket, discarding the story's uncomfortable tension so this Bob can enjoy his moment in the sun. While

The Good Thief
Dir. Neil Jordan; writ. Auguste Le Breton and Jean-Pierre Melville (original screenplay), Neil Jordan; feat. Nick Nolte, Tchéky Karyo, Saïd Taghmaoui, Nutsa Kukhanidze, Gérard Darmon, Emir Kusturica, Mark Polish, Michael Polish (R)
this may not be the most believable way to go, it does provide for one of the film's few genuinely touching moments, in which Bob, under his breath to his teenaged date, acknowledges a shocking run of good luck almost as if he were ashamed of it.

There are small pleasures like this elsewhere in the film, touches that don't add much to the overall tone but aren't unwelcome - especially the late-in-the-game arrival of Mark and Michael Polish, the identical twins who wrote, directed, and starred in Twin Falls Idaho. They show up with their own scheme after the main one is plotted; it's a fresher plan than the one Nolte's gang is using, a labor- and capital-intensive trick identical to the one in Ocean's 11, and it's a pity to waste it. (Note to the Polish brothers: There would be no shame in recycling the idea a few years from now.)

The twins aren't the only apparent red herrings in this contentedly sly remake, but they are the smartest. One or two others feel grafted on, insufficient to replace the plot twists excised from Bob Le Flambeur. Still, Thief puts its own enjoyable spin on the source material, giving its star a role more appropriate for him than the original - even if Nolte does eventually prove that he cleans up pretty well. •

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More by John DeFore

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